It’s the digital age, they say. We do things the digital way, they say. But do we really?
Digitalisation seems to be the buzz word these days.
And yet, when it comes to digitalising literary learning, we’re not seeing as much progress as we are hearing about how progress has been made.
Progress, by the way, doesn’t have to be fancy or complex.
When we talk about ‘digitalising’ learning, it’s less about inventing new speed-reading apps or building the next big e-learning platform, and more to do with adopting a mindset that’s open to marrying tech and learning for the sake of efficiency – even opting for e-textbooks over traditional print ones would be a good example of this.
With the rise of e-books and digital literacy tools, an age-old debate surfaces:
Is the print book well and truly dead?
As a lover and consumer of literature, I confess to being a ‘print snob’ (i.e. someone who thinks that only paper, ink and binding make a ‘real’ book).
I must also confess that such snobbery is now on wobbly grounds, as a recent experience has since destabilised my faith in ‘print superiority’.
Here’s what happened.
About a month ago, I ordered a copy of Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within (a delightful manual on poetics for those who are interested in reading and/writing poetry) on the Book Depository website.
To be honest, I’ve always been slightly wary of Book Depository, having read customer reviews about long delays and sporadic timelines in delivery. But it offered what I wanted at a cheaper price than Amazon, and the book wasn’t available in any of the city bookstores, so I took the plunge and made my purchase on 13 May.
According to BD’s ‘acknowledgement of receipt’ email, the book was supposed to arrive within 10-15 days.
That, of course, did not happen.
Despite allowing for a ‘coronavirus leniency period’, there was still no sign of my Fry purchase a whole month after I had placed my order.
With that, I emailed BD’s customer service department on 13 June with a diplomatically-worded enquiry.
Much to my dismay, I was told that the order had been “lost in transit”, and because they were “unable to process replacement orders at this moment in time”, they would have to process a refund, and by the way, “sorry for the disappointment this may have caused”.
Apology grudgingly accepted, but cause for disappointment this certainly was! My issue wasn’t so much with the money as it was –
- the time lost waiting for the delivery,
- the end result of there being no book, nothing, nada,
- the crestfallen feeling that resulted from 1) and 2)
Not one to settle for unfulfilled pursuits, I googled for an alternative solution (you can tell that I really wanted Fry’s book).
This time, instead of Amazon and the like, what popped up first on the results list was a listing on Google Play, which, for those who are unfamiliar, is a marketplace for e-books, apps, games and films.
Digital or not, desperate times call for desperate measures, which at that point meant putting aside my ‘print snobbery’ and giving its electronic clone a shot.
So I purchased ‘The Ode Less Travelled’ in its full digital glory for GBP 3.99 – almost 1/3 of what I had paid for the print version.
From looking the book up to making the payment to finally – finally! – laying my eyes on Fry’s humorous, erudite prose, the entire process took me less than a minute.
That’s really not bad, considering I had waited one whole month for a book which never arrived.
What’s the point of my anecdote?
Before I answer that, I will say what my point isn’t.
It’s not to show the ‘death’ of print books, or to evangelise the benefits of digital reading, or even – to caution you against ordering from Book Depository (fine, maybe it’s a little bit of this).
My point is that we live in an age where there’s technically no excuse not to read.
Books of all topics, genres and languages are now literally a click away, and reading entails the same action as scrolling on your phone or laptop.
There’s no other period in history where so much knowledge is so accessible, so quickly.
When we think about it, Gen Z (born 1995 and after) and Gen Alpha (born 2013 and after) are either going to be incredibly smart, or incredibly overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information they have such ready access to.
So, does this mean print books have lost their value and place in the reading experience?
And if e-books are so convenient, is there any use for their erstwhile, bumbling, material cousins – apart from being nice decorative props for the coffee table?
What’s good about print?
1) It’s familiar to us
Growing up, our parents and teachers read to us from print books. I’d wager that your memory of bedtime storytelling doesn’t consist of mom scrolling through her MacBook Air and swiping left for the next page, but instead, of her holding an actual copy of The Cat in the Hat or James and the Giant Peach or whatever book she deemed beneficial for your growth.
This isn’t a trivial point. Research shows that adults draw strongly on childhood experiences, and we tend to associate concepts with the way we had first encountered them as children. For most of us, then, when we think of ‘reading’, the image that first comes to mind is likely to be an actual book.
This means that subconsciously, we tend to be more at ease when reading with a physical copy in hand, because we’ve been hardwired to understand it as the most natural manifestation of the act.
An analogy for this would be to compare a classic beef burger with an ‘impossible’ burger; they’re both burgers, and despite all the supposed health benefits of going meatless, why do people still tend to stick with the classic option (vegetarians aside)?
It’s the same reason: familiarity. We’re used to what we know, so no matter how many variations we come up with for the same thing, we always end up circling back to the original version, be it burgers or books.
2) It’s a mind-body experience
This may sound odd, but when I say that reading is a ‘full-body’ experience, I mean that it’s a process that’s at once cognitive, intellectual, emotional, physical and tactile.
The rustling of the page, the muskiness of the pulp, the texture of the paper – even the crack of the spine: these are all aspects of reading that complete the experience.
Notwithstanding the necessity of content, theme, style and craft for any book, there’s a solid argument to be made for the equal importance of savouring those bibliographic elements.
Also, if you’ve ever tried reading in bed or in some sort of reclining pose, you’ll realise that it’s much comfier doing so with a physical book, given its relative malleability in form, as compared to a Kindle/iPad/Laptop.
Reading, then, is as much of an intellectual activity as it is an organic experience, where sight, touch, hearing – even smell, all come into play.
3) It’s a symbol of taste
If literature is art, then print books are paper sculptures. The book as an object is the perfect crystallisation of utilitarian and aesthetic needs.
It’s no coincidence that books are regularly featured in interior design catalogues; they are a symbol of the household’s social standing and cultural pedigree.
Every house has got chairs and tables, but not every family keeps a collection of books (or paintings, for that matter). Of course, just because someone buys a lot of books doesn’t necessarily mean that they are avid readers, or even that they’re ‘cultured’. Acquired culturedness is a thing – just ask Jay Gatsby.
There’s no denying, though, that like all visual artworks, books in their splendid materiality offer great aesthetic pleasure. One could even see a wall of multi-coloured book spines and typographically varied book titles as, in its own way, an impasto painting.
What’s not so good about print?
1) It’s heavy and takes up space
One of the downsides of print books is that they’re just not very portable.
Depending on how slim or fat / short or long your book is, it’s bound to occupy some space in your bag and put extra weight on your shoulders.
That’s not a big deal if you’re throwing a 180-page novella like Breakfast at Tiffany’s in your canvas tote, but the fact remains that people who read Tolstoy, Dickens, Proust and other brick-thick novels do exist – some forced (students), some willing (rare and beautiful souls).
For them, carrying a copy of War and Peace or Bleak House to school or the neighbourhood beach practically doubles as a weight training session.
Besides, for the gung-ho multitaskers among us whose bags are a regular motley of textbooks/work documents, gym gear, make-up/skincare products, possibly a packed lunch and other such sundry items, there’s probably not a lot of space left over for a 400-plus page behemoth.
2) It’s fragile
Another issue with print books is their potential for wear and tear, yellowing and decay.
Spilt liquids are a big no-no, as dampness makes paper more vulnerable to being ripped off, and even when it dries off, it shrivels up and roughens. Ever tried putting a bottle of ice-cold water and a softcopy bestseller in the same bag? Yeah, not pretty.
We’ve also been taught that dog-earing pages and cracking book spines constitue acts of animal cruelty, largely because such actions inflict permanent ‘scars’. And annotating-by-pencil (or god forbid, biros or highlighters) remains a touchy subject in the library science field to this day.
As if all that gestural tip-toeing isn’t enough, there’s also the controversial practice of plastic book-wrapping, which means exactly as it sounds, i.e. wrapping the outer surfaces of a book with plastic film. Good: this protects books from fraying edges and other defacing perils. Bad: it’s awful for the environment.
And while there’s a certain charm in old books – hence the continued existence of second-hand bookstores, one can never be too sure if a bookworm or two (real ones) is lurking in the crevices of that vintage Shakespeare folio you’re holding so close to your face.
These vermins can wreck surprising damage on books, sometimes even boring through multiple pieces of paper to create holes between pages.
3) It’s time-consuming to obtain
Maybe you got the memo on this from my Book Depository anecdote. So I don’t have much else to say.
Of course, ‘time-consuming’ is a relative concept, but in order to obtain a copy of any book, one needs to either visit the library or the bookstore (both of which are perfectly enjoyable activities per se, though the point about time still stands), or place an online order and wait for weeks – or months.
The sad phenomenon of bookshops closing left right and centre over the past decade also reflects the waning prospects of print book consumption (Borders in the US was liquidated in 2011; W. H. Smith in the UK closed down 60% of its retail stores during the 2020 coronavirus period; Dymocks, Page One and Popular – prominent chain booksellers in Hong Kong and/or Singapore – have all scaled back operations).
All this shows us that getting a print book comes with substantial time cost, which – while not a problem for some – raises the threshold of reading for others. After all, word on the street is that ain’t nobody got no time to read these days, so it’s important that books are made as easily accessible as possible.
With ebook downloads taking less than a minute these days, it’s small wonder that print booksellers are feeling the heat.
So what’s the conclusion? Are print books here to stay, do they have enough of an edge to withstand the threat of e-books, and will digital reading completely take over print one day?
While I’m no Pythia of Bibliographic Fate, it’s possible that we may eventually think of print books as we do antiques today – more objects of art than sources of knowledge. Ironically, these stacks of paper may even appreciate in value, auctioned off at a Sotheby’s for Books.
For now, though, I think it’s fair to say that the print book – notwithstanding its practical flaws, is a wonderfully versatile thing:
paper weight (made out of paper)
bookend (made of, well, books)
And so on.
What are your thoughts? Comment below and let me know!