The increasingly popular ebook sat on top of the traditional physical version

Ebooks: how the Digital Age transformed the way we read

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Image description: An Kindle on top of a regular book

I’m not old enough to pull the whole ‘back-in-my-day-I-read-by-candlelight’, and I certainly can’t relate to the youngest generation of readers who grew up reading in the dark. That last bit I don’t mean figuratively: Kindle’s, iPad’s and other self-lit electronic devices have made it so we can continue reading after mains lights are switched off. Taking it one step further, audiobooks mean we can quite literally ‘read’ with our eyes closed.

However, Ebooks have transformed our lives in far more ways than simply invalidating bedside lamps. Now, we can carry an entire library in the pocket of our jeans and the complete works of Charles Dickens can be at your fingertips, simply by tapping ‘download’. All this, done from your living room.

I have to admit this was a blessing in the first few weeks of Michaelmas. As a fresher, studying in the Bodleian library was a terrifying prospect, let alone the faculty library… far safer to stay in my cosy room on the top floor, with the kettle close to hand (although this is potentially more dangerous, as my friends will testify) and my entire reading list on SOLO – all without the intimidating sound of relentless typing.

Mention JSTOR to any humanity student and the response you’ll get is probably close to that of a fan asked about their favourite celebrity. I’m yet to meet an English student who hasn’t written an entire essay using last-minute JSTOR articles – to say we ‘worship’ it isn’t such an overstatement considering it is a lifeline for most of us.

What’s not to love about online articles?

What’s not to love about online articles? There’s no denying that a control F search is far quicker than using an index to find a keyword or passage, and this can be easily copied into notes or an essay for a direct reference. Scrolling, more so than skimming, saves valuable time which (when your ‘To do’ list is double-sided) can be the difference between getting six or eight hours of sleep.

But – and this is a big but – there is something magical about a physical book

But – and this is a big but – there is something magical about a physical book. Friends with hay fever would disagree, but I like the musty smell of old books. It’s as though the words inside have more power in their antiquity, like preserved relics of a bygone age. I like the texture of the paper between the fingers, and the sound they make when turned compared to a flat, motionless computer screen. I even enjoy reading pencil scribbles inside margins or between the lines, evidence of previous readers and the thoughts they left behind – although more often than not it’s an argument over the morality of writing in a book.

Now we can carry an entire library in the pocket of our jeans

The online consensus of this ebook/printed book divide seems mixed, with some complaining about eye strain from reading a screen, and others arguing their eyes benefit from the ability to magnify font size. I did, however, stumble across an interesting journal from the San Jose State University studying brain activity and reading behaviour with electronic texts. It found that digital documents cause us to read in a ‘non-linear’ pattern where our eyes dart all over the web-page, scanning for keywords rather than in-depth reading. The kind of immersive slow reading required for tackling Ulysses or a 2kg biology textbook is replaced by the rapid processing of information. According to their results, we have less concentration and sustained attention when reading online – but this should hardly surprise us.

Essentially, we read novels, textbooks and articles online the same way as we process our social media feed: scrolling until something catches our attention, which never lasts for long before something else distracts us. Yes, we may be saving ourselves hours of reading information irrelevant to the essay title, but perhaps this comes at a cost. Are we losing the ability to fully engage with texts?

Are we losing the ability to fully engage with texts?

This is where audiobooks truly flourish – arguably the best invention since I discovered that there are chemistry spice sets (cooking curries will never be the same) and alarm clocks that launch rockets into the air. Despite restraining myself, there is no subtle way for me to express my love for audiobooks. I promise I’m not sponsored by Audible when I say that it has, quite simply, transformed my life.

Okay, that might sound like a big claim – but it’s not as exaggerated as it seems. Be it walking the dogs, commuting to work or preparing dinner, audiobooks allow you to multi-task. This ability to read whilst completing tasks that would otherwise be done in silence or listening to music is an efficient use of time (and a more interesting one).

We read novels, textbooks and articles online the same way as we process our social media feed: scrolling until something catches our attention, which never lasts for long before something else distracts us

What started off as a podcast on the benefits of green tea (the origin of my obsession) quickly developed into a monthly membership with Audible to help tackle the mile-long Oxford reading lists. It’s not just the fact that I can increase the narration speed to x2.5 – the whole experience is far more enjoyable. I find myself laughing aloud from the ridiculous accents used by the narrator for particular characters, or appreciating more depth of emotion in melancholic passages I probably would have read in the same flat tone (is it just me whose internal voice reads everything the same?). This variety of voices can make a novel far more entertaining, and far easier to follow, especially if the character list is as long as that in The Idiot.

Yes, there are a few drawbacks. It’s difficult to highlight a particular passage you want to return to later, and unlike physical books, you don’t get the pleasure from lending a friend or family member your copy of a book you think they’ll enjoy. Worst of all, my hairbands, headphones and other random house objects can no longer claim to function as impromptu bookmarks.

Despite these, I would still choose an audiobook over a physical book nine times out of ten. They can really bring the characters of a novel to life, and I find it easier to recall information I’ve heard as opposed to something that I’ve read. If this isn’t enough to convince you, then consider that audiobook’s solve the problem of screen insomnia: in our sleep-deprived society, we could all do with an extra hour in bed.

One thing is clear enough – I’ll be applying for Audible’s marketing manager at the end of this degree.

Image credit: Neilfein 

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