If there’s anything more gratifying than pizza and spaghetti in my life, it’s turning over the pages of a book for the first time and sniffing their rich, musky after scent. Some of us have grown up reading books for as long as we can remember. I have lived a thousand lives in pages, from Anne Frank’s quiet acts of rebellion in an attic, to poignant descriptions of Afghanistan in Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner. But reading isn’t just about the stories themselves, it’s also about the sensory experiences we associate with them. It’s as much about gingerly flipping the pages one by one and sipping masala tea while watching the rain pour outside, as imagining yourself in your favorite persona. The idea of using your sense of touch, sight, and smell is something so intimate, raw and central to the process of reading that most of us take it for granted. It’s only after using my Nook device to access a book that I realized the irreplaceable nostalgia of holding a book in one’s hand. Put bluntly, reading from a screen isjust not the same as reading a physical copy. But this nostalgia is slowly disappearing with the onset of the digital revolution, as publishers seek to cut costs in an increasingly competitive industry. Could the digitization of books be the next frontier in media?
There may indeed be some merits to the digitization of books, the most obvious being increased dissemination of knowledge and choices for consumers. More and more libraries around the world are initiating ambitious mass-digitization projects in conjunction with private firms. In 2015, Wellcome Library and Jisc announced that nine partners were combining forces to digitize over fifteen million pages of 19thcentury medical books. Google wants to take things up a notch by digitizing every book in the world (perhaps that isn’t such a long shot given the breakneck speed of the digital revolution). Besides free access and better preservation of books, these kinds of projects level the playing field for both consumers and producers by not letting companies or organizations unfairly monopolize knowledge. That way, libraries and borrowers won’t have to jealously compete over the limited physical stock of books available.
Of course, itwithout saying that transferring books to databases is much more cost-efficient than maintaining physical libraries, since staff and maintenance costs are virtually absorbed. Computerized libraries may also allow people to locate books in a matter of seconds using markers such as author, theme, or date of publication and overcome difficulties of limited storage capacity. Round the clock accessibility would enable people to browse books at their own time and convenience without being bound by opening hours. And the truth is that it’s not just libraries that are taking the digital hit; traditional print outlets are similarly affected. Newsweek’s print demise after eighty glorious years shows the harsh reality of multi-media consumption as print publications face the wrath of the internet and a new breed of bold readers.
But the written page doesn’t seem to be giving up just yet. For starters, digital books are still excruciatingly difficult to navigate and provide little docility. Even though they resemble copies of paper, they can't be designed or typeset in the same way as paper. Unlike print media, e-books are also highly volatile to flimsy licensing issues and policy changes. Consider the incident when Amazon randomly removed digital editions of some Orwellian classics like 1984 and Animal Farm from the Kindle devices of users who had already bought them. The issue sparked outrage from users as books were added to the Kindle store by a company that did not have rights to them. Regulating the vastness of the digital space is therefore extremely difficult and may fail to protect the rights of the authors and existing legal frameworks.
In fact, The Authors Guild has been complaining for years that authors who publish e-books get lower royalties and as a result, struggle to sustain themselves and write new books. Even the most sophisticated technology on e-books is also unlikely to solve the problem of eye-fatigue, which has been on the rise as more and more people consume content through their screens. A study conducted by Harvard Medical School for example found that reading a light-emitting e-book before bed interferes with one’s ability to sleep, hence affecting one’s alertness the next morning, and consequently his overall health. Lastly, the digitization of books severely impacts the shelf-life of books themselves. While physical books can be preserved forever, we can’t say the same for e-books. Do you really think that ten years down the road, your futuristic reading device would be completely compatible with today’s e-books? The chances are pretty slim.
For us old-fashioned romantics, it’s hard to fathom a world where every book is digitized, where one no longer reads and touches the words on a rusted page. Trends in the printing industry however have been surprisingly resistant to technology: A Nielsen survey in 2016 found that UK e-book sales declined by 4% in that year for the second consecutive time. This was partly due to the release of some notable titles and the idea that “readers take a pleasure in a physical book that does not translate well on to digital”. Clearly, physical books are here to stay for some time if not forever. Here’s to hoping that when the time comes, I’ll be able to pass on my most prized literary heirlooms to my grandchildren.