The Debated Future of Books

Reputable broadsheet newspapers, like The Guardian, headline articles time again on why books are dying, how ebooks are taking over, and how books are not dying, how ebooks are not taking over – but fewer on how not enough reading is actually done. In reality, there is quite a lot of reading going on, reading of blogs and messages, and webcomics, and news-stories, and fluctuating sales; but the difference is in the complexity and nature of that reading. With fewer articulate, long, and complicated writings being consumed it becomes less probable that lucid, long and complicated thoughts can be shared. We are all literate (you are reading this) but being literate is gradated in a similar way to any other skill; if I can swim in a pool or ready pasta that apparently makes me a swimmer and a cook–but it does not make me as qualified as practiced swimmers and cooks. Similarly, reading words does not equate to a completed literacy, but a share in an inexhaustible source of knowledge (learning another language makes this obvious, even native language fluency is unfinishable).

Public intellectuals like Susan Jacoby, authors like Jonathan Franzen, and cognitive scientists like Steven Pinker agree that longer reads and more complex ideas have more cognitive load than short-reads or simple reads. Complexity as a word can be construed as snobbish but is real: if simplicity and simple reads (Stephanie Meyer) exist so do their opposite of complexity and complicated reads (Virginia Woolf). Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark is more substantial than Nicole Polizzi’s terrible Shore Thing. But in any case, whether fiction or nonfiction, that extended reading is more beneficial than fragmented pieces and algorithm delivered information.

Now, of course, fragmented information and reduction have their place: chunking is how we remember, summaries provide a shortcut, time and mind is dreadfully limited–the debates around books decline however does not hover around their reading or in population literacy, but on the medium. A mistake: in lauding the end of books, in favour of e-books is to overlook how any book is an ally. Data gathered at University College London suggests only 55% of UK adults regularly read ficion, only 6.5% read poetry; The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development ranks English teenagers (16-19) as the least literate of OCED nations.

More useful is an evaluation of the e-book and paper-books that show why both are valuable in their own way; without the need for excitatory exaggerations that confuse a ‘decline’ – merely a trough in statistical graph of rise and decline – with ‘the end’ of either. That merely garners attention through the human tribalistic weakness for X versus Y. Nevertheless, I am happily biased toward paper books, even audiobooks, because, quite simply, their benefits outweigh the benefits of ebooks.

The evidence is inconclusive but for the time it seems paper is more memorable than screens: a text and its style and messages are better remembered in studies of paper. This is because of the visuospatial aspect of reading, and novelty – the uniqueness of object and material senses of smell and touch as well as durative turn-page progress of a book allow better recall of the information it contains. This makes sense: reading on an e-reader has the books all in the same place and in the same way which means text has few distinctive difference-markers that make for more distinct memories; it becomes an amorphous whole.
Similarly, altering and underlining is a process conducive to encoding the information it contains, impossible on an e-reader which has highlighting and click-to-reveal notations.
Paper books are more readable than other reading mediums – reading is pretty mechanical, and the apparent typography, progress, and explicit left-right page domains are more readable in paper books. Indeed, most screens give screen fatigue and those that do not fatigue, work as a less varied imitation of ordinary paper – as in e-ink readers like the paperwhite kindle, that, somehow, still provide few fonts.
Paper books can display all different forms from poetry, comic books, children’s literature, picture books that become grayscale condensed failures in e-ink, none screen fatigue, e-readers. E-readers also, suffer by association with other devices that trigger the brain to distraction rather than reading and contemplation. Context and association matters.

As uniquely tangible objects, paper books serve as aesthetic choices and useable decoration and pleasurable visual and tactile forms – owning them is akin to vinyl in that it is not necessary, but the most beloved are wanted in a ‘realer’ form. Moreover, as objects they serve as social tools – exchanged, borrowed, gifted, that an actual comprehensive dominance of ebooks would make obsolete. In a similar way that streaming has killed the romance of a mix-tape; I thankfully doubt this will happen in the domain of books.

Ebooks are useful because they are easily cataloged, it is, therefore, easier to search and use for research – even at short notice, and often at a lower price. And they do not require physical space, which makes them easy to transport and store.

Several studies suggest that readers of both paper and e-books read more books overall (though the depth of wide reading may be dubious, and is not evaluated by such studies).

Audiobooks are valuable because they incorporate the human voice to any text – that can make the sometimes dry interesting with the auditory sense, and in doing satiate the human desire for a voice to the words. It is only in the burgeoning of modern entertainments that reading became separate from reading aloud- reading aloud was second nature and social for centuries; audiobooks seem to use technology to fill that void. Most obviously, however, it makes narratives accessible to the illiterate or disabled, and is better for audio-memorisers.

Paper, e, and audiobooks all have their uses And the value of reading of all kinds, by any means, ought to be encouraged. There is no winning: all are here to stay, and all can complement one another.

What creates concern around reading is the dispute based on preconceptions around paper books – as the most obvious signifier of ordinary, serious, reading. A cynical view of reading extends to a negative view of paper books. Because a pervasive consumerist culture is spread by entertainment industries that compete for ‘users’ attention. Hence, books are often viewed as consumables – rather than thinking experiences. Youtube summaries of books, and speed-reading efficiency, and STEM prestige are pandemic. It is as though books are consumed like a drug and then moved on from, or used as an escapism from the real business of moneymaking or The Airport Read. In these trends the overarching influences of our culture become apparent. A Calvinist work ethic reigns: we are conditioned to feel guilty for not getting on with making use of our time for quick material ends; while we are conditioned to accept the dominance of entertainment industries and frivolous leisure time; we take the lack of relationships with books, that was common and widely embedded into the literate social life of the past, as a misnomer; and are conditioned into a reductive desire to pick out The Points of a book from what is, by itself, a point.

Books are not dying, they are evolving, and the paper form remains strong. Rather than a news debate around statistics of medium use by year (18% paper book rise, 8% ebook decline in articles from 2016), the onus ought to be on reading itself (deeply, widely) at all; the question of medium whether paper, screen, or graphic (even audio) form, is a secondary matter. At best a detraction from the more pressing concern of literacy and critical thinking evermore necessary in a ‘post-truth’ era.

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