Surviving or Thriving? Books in a digital world

Culture Life

Image description: Biblioteca Vasconcelos, Mexico

My dream has always been to own a library. Nothing too fancy – I’m not asking for an Austen-esque regency manor with a cavernous expanse of dust jackets and cloth bindings – just an otherwise ordinary room whose decoration represents a shrine to books.

Living in an increasingly digital society, where technology continues to threaten to supplant physical literature, it’s easy to assume that the concept of books is on its way out; in theory, too, the book should be consigned to the past. Once read, its purpose declines to that of a relic, a monument to the transient enjoyment, or indeed tedium, experienced within its pages. Unless, as rarely, it is re-read several times over, it becomes nothing more than clutter. The decline of the CD in favour of streaming music has already exposed this foible through the surge in popularity of instantaneously-accessible cultural content with no physical encumberment left behind.

Living in an increasingly digital society, where technology continues to threaten to supplant physical literature, it’s easy to assume that the concept of books is on its way out

Logically, then, the humble book should be heading towards the same demise, and yet market research trends show little sign of this supposed ‘decline and fall’ actually taking place. According to CNBC, of the $26bn total sales of books across the US related in the Association of American Publishers’ 2019 annual report, a staggering $22.6bn was made from printed books alone. Additionally, contrary to expectations, it’s not the older generation who are powering the survival of physical literature: CNBC’s article also highlights that 63% of print books sold in the UK are to those under the age of 44, with the older generation conversely more likely to choose an e-book instead.

We shouldn’t be surprised at the tenacity of the book, or indeed the likely reasons for its survival in the modern age since history inevitably repeats itself. Among the earliest manuscripts and printed books housed in Arts End, part of Duke Humfrey’s library in the Bodleian, the most popular and elegant are editions of Aristotle’s works. Books were, in the days before mass printing, lavish unnecessary expenditures designed as a symbol of wealth and social status. Even as a Classicist, Aristotle does not tend to be an easy or particularly enjoyable read, which leads me to assume that the majority of their owners didn’t deign to actually read their weighty tomes in any detail, instead of showcasing their implied cultural capital merely in the ownership and display of such knowledge.

Books were, in the days before mass printing, lavish unnecessary expenditures designed as a symbol of wealth and social status

A similar trait is visible today and seems likely to continue into the future of our society since even after cheap paper, ink and production lines have diminished the monetary value of today’s books, their social and cultural capital remains high. The predominant change from the past is in our consumption as well as a display of this learning: to have a well-thumbed copy of War and Peace on your shelf is tantamount to casually opening a conversation with ‘I fought Tolstoy and won’, while to have kept up with the biggest trends and innovations in modern literature creates a sense of belonging in society’s ever-evolving cultural climate.

Equally, the physical trace of knowledge consumed and horizons broadened is akin to a trophy for achievement. Anyone who has had to read for work rather than pleasure in support of an essay, report or thesis will recognise that contrary to the appearance of someone nose-deep in a book, reading is, in fact, a highly active rather than passive pastime. It requires a significant level of concentration, retention and processing to engage with and understand the nuances of literature, fiction and non-fiction.

In an age of bite-size tweets, image-orientated communication and shortened attention spans generated as a result, it comes as no surprise that younger people – those most likely to be immersed in all things digital in their daily lives – are especially keen to get away from a screen and stretch their minds through reading; and then, of course, to cherish the fruit of their labours through the memento of the book itself.

63% of print books sold in the UK are to those under the age of 44, with the older generation conversely more likely to choose an e-book instead

There is one section of society not mentioned in many commercial stats, for whom the consumption of literature is of paramount importance: younger readers. This category covers both children and adolescents, as literacy is an important skill for early learners in its own right, which can then be developed to support later learning in all aspects of the school curriculum.

Sadly, the reading trends in this age-group are alarming. The National Literacy Trust’s 2017/8 report into the reading habits of children shows that levels of daily reading and reading engagement are in decline, as ‘stories’ move from the page to app-based games and parents find it, on the whole, easier and more practical to put iPads rather than books in front of their children when travelling or at rest. Children’s minds move fast, books move slowly; the result is that children’s shorter attention spans benefit from a multi-sensory experience which books in their current format are unable to provide.

To address this issue, radical steps are finally being taken to bring books to children, rather than vice versa, though – ironically – through the introduction of technology into reading. Research is underway for the use of augmented reality in digital versions of children’s books, making shapes and characters come ‘alive’ on the page to keep attention focused on the story at hand.

The National Literacy Trust’s 2017/8 report into the reading habits of children shows that levels of daily reading and reading engagement are in decline, as ‘stories’ move from the page to app-based games.

Most interestingly, storylines in children’s literature are beginning to be adapted to better suit their interests. BBC Radio 2’s ‘500 words’ challenge, asking primary-age learners from around the UK to send in 500 words of writing, revealed through big data analysis that ‘plastic’ was the children’s ‘word of the year’ for 2018, not only because of the increase in the frequency of its use from previous years but also because of the emergence of negative connotations surrounding the word. Many children, it seems, used their 500 words to devise creative solutions for the climate crisis, and children’s literature should rightly evolve to embrace this social consciousness.

At the end of all this, then, are books today thriving or merely surviving? The future prospects for the physical book, and for reading more generally, are by turns heartening and worrying depending on which trends you study. And yet, as history has shown us, there is a tenacity to the book which has persisted over the centuries, allowing tomes to retain their social and cultural value even amidst technological revolutions such as mass printing machines and, most recently, the resistible rise of the digital world. Because of this, while dreaming of my future library, I am cautiously optimistic that future generations, too, will continue to dream of their own.

Image credit: Diego Delso

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