Reading in 2020: End Print Vs Digital Debate

Now to Foster Sustainability, Accessibility and Adaptability

By Urvi Sharma

Reading a book is akin to an occult experience which consumes you, sucks your soul out of your body and for a moment sanctions you the freedom to be someone else in some other place having experiences that your personal life does not allow you. I first experienced this phenomenon when I was 19. I fell asleep reading Anne of Avonlea and woke up in the morning with the thought that I’ve to go meet Mr Harrison, my new neighbour. I took bath, dressed myself up and it was only when I looked in the mirror while brushing my hair that I realized, I had no red hair and I was no Anne Shirley. Grasping the power of that indelible experience took me a few hours or maybe days to be precise, but it made me realise that reading a book (some books more than others) is a powerful and mystic experience. A major reason for this emotional and psychological consummation is the sensory experience of reading which entails the palpability to hold the book in your hands, the seasoned attar of the parchment, the sound of turning each page and clutching it tighter as the plot thickens. These are the pleasures that any reader savours. As pages shrink on the right and grow on left, you feel a tactile sense of psychological tumult, emotional attachment and progress.

Today, the digitisation has transformed this reading experience by including a variety of screen‐based technologies and reading devices. The palpable book has been replaced with an e-reading device while the sound of turning a page has been swapped by the dramatic turn in the modulations of an audiobook. From JD Salinger’s stubborn defiance of publishing the digital editions of his writings to Michigan, a woman with a hand-related disability, convincing the Salinger Estate to acquiesce to digital editions, we have come a long way. From its apparent natural place of print books, reading today has dislodged in the dynamic and interactive constellations of media. The debate is no more about the preference of paperback, hardcover, eBook or audiobook, but the imperativeness of sustainability, accessibility and adaptability. This notion gains even a greater significance during the COVID-19 pandemic crisis which has accentuated the need to address erratic climate change and loss of eco-diversity.

There are a number of researches that emphasize on the fact that reading print books is vital for cognitive and spatial memory. The physical touch and gravitas of holding a book are helpful in mentally mapping the details of the book. It is on this basis that the advocates of print books make it seem like Ray Bradbury's dystopia of Fahrenheit 451, where books are burnt and outlawed, has come alive with the growing popularity of the electronic mediums of reading. However, they miss the point that it is on the account of these mediums that a new reading class is emerging. Although the recent innovations in the field of reading have changed the publication trends, what hasn’t changed is the everlasting love of people to read. No matter what shape and medium it comes from, more and more people are now revelling in the world of Kalidasa and Shakespeare because of the increased accessibility and adaptability.

With the advent of eBooks and audiobooks, the luxury of reading is no more reserved for those who can afford to pay for the print books. Websites like Project Gutenberg, Pdf Drive, Audiobook Archive etc. have made it possible for the readers to access the books without paying a penny for them. These can be read and listened to directly on your mobile device or laptop, without even buying an e-reader. Apart from their economic viability, eBooks and audiobooks are instantly accessible and adaptable. People with visual and physical disabilities or dyslexia may not be able to read print books. So, eBooks and audiobooks are convenient for them. Moreover, eBooks come with the enhanced options of adjusting the font-size, in-built thesaurus and highlighter while reading. You can carry the whole of libraries while travelling on your smart devices. You know that feeling of guilt when you scribble or highlight something on your book? Well, eBook spares you the guilt by providing the option of making notes on your smart device. In fact, the electronic mediums of reading can redeem your conscience in more ways than one. Every year, billions of trees are cut across the world to publish books. Switching to eBooks and/or audiobooks or reducing the number of print editions you buy can be a significant environmental contribution. The growing innovations have thereby increased the access to reading and paved the way for eco-friendly and sustainable mediums of reading.

Several readers argue that the print edition is the most authentic way to read a book whereas others contend that both reading offline as well as online along with listening to the audiobooks are different ways to reach the same destination. However, I argue to differ from both of these conventional standpoints. Reading is a collaboration between the reader, the text and reception. Wolfgang Iser elucidated how the personal experience shapes the act of reading for any individual. Introducing different mediums in this equation is inevitably going to change the reader-text dynamic. Now the personal preferences of readers may vary, but the different mediums to read, listen or experience a book lead us to different destinations. To answer which destination is better is again a very subjective and personal opinion. The best way to put it is; To each his/her own! The paradigm shift in reading, therefore, needs to be understood in the simultaneous existence of these varying modalities instead of a constant melee between them.

Urvi Sharma is a PhD Research Scholar enrolled in the Department of English and Cultural Studies, Panjab University, Chandigarh.

Currently busy with writing her thesis, she often wakes up from the nightmares of unread books shaming her from the bookshelf for not spending enough time with them. Though she is devouring Eduardo Galeano’s Voices of Time on her Kindle at present, she can’t wait to browse the aisles of the bookshops and go broke once the pandemic is over.

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