Before the arrival of touchscreen technology and the marvel that is ‘paperless books’ on electronic devices, people visited libraries and bookshops where they intimately interacted with books, choosing just the one to take home and immerse themselves in. The nostalgic memories of the weight and smell of particularly beloved books linger on for many readers, coming together to cement not only a love for books but also a reading habit that many would say modern children and teenagers growing up in the 21st century lack.
When You’ve Got Mail came out in 1998, it was instantly one of my favourite movies. A rom-com starring Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, the story set in motion when a mega-chain bookstore owned by Hanks opens near a small, independent bookshop run by Ryan aptly named ‘The Shop Around The Corner’.
Ultimately, Ryan’s cosy little bookstore goes out of business, unable to compete with the new shark, Fox Books. A story all too real for Lahoris in 2018, as it bears some similarities to the October closing down of The Last Word, a wonderful independent bookshop and community space run by Aysha Raja.
This is exactly what I feel Kindles/Nooks/other such technological doodahs that purport to replace good old fashioned paper and ink books will do: put the around-the-corner tiny little bookshops out of business, because truly how can one compete with the ease and efficiency that such technology provides? With a few effortless taps, you can purchase and download virtually any book under the sun on your device; for bookstores, it is near impossible to match this.
The advantages of technology are perhaps incomparable to the simplicity of paper imprinted with words, bound together into a sometimes bulky, yet often delicate bundle, known as books. But to some (myself included), the tactile experience of exploring a book is woven tightly with early memories of reading from childhood. For others, reading a real book is a cherished daily ritual that helps cut down screen time and promotes mindfulness.
Perhaps for bibliophiles like me, what it boils down to is the definition of what qualifies as a ‘book’. Is it merely the story contained in the pages, or is it a physical object with its covers, paper and ink, along with the story?
When I put this question to my friends, Mariam Tareen Sethi replied, “I can’t read fiction on a screen because it doesn’t connect the same way with my brain. And for fiction, I need to feel fully immersed which I personally can only feel with a paper book.” Sethi teaches writing classes at her initiative The Writing Room, Lahore.
But it is often difficult to maintain a love for reading when you can’t always carry a bulky book along with you. “It’s a light, convenient alternative to conventional reading and the new Kindle has managed to fix whatever was giving me an eye ache from reading in the past. The Kindle slips easily into my bag and I’m the sort of person that reads two books at a time, if one is boring me, I switch over to the other (but I can’t leave a book unfinished). Hence, travelling with a Kindle is a lot easier,” says reader Aneeza Abbasi, a school teacher who divides her time between Lahore and Dubai.
There is no dispute about the many benefits of a small, lightweight, handheld device that can store limitless amounts of books and fit in any briefcase, purse, and sometimes even pocket. Sure, you can read in the dark whilst your significant other snoozes blissfully unaware beside you, since Kindles have an adjustable backlight. And yes, it’s true you can highlight, bookmark, add notes, and look up any word in the built-in dictionary just with a few deft taps and swipes.
For Kindle-hating curmudgeons like me, for whom reading on a device is already a stretch, audiobooks pose an even greater challenge to our philosophical understanding of what constitutes a book, and consequently, reading. A few months ago, when faced with the daunting task of reading a particularly dry Kazuo Ishiguro novel, many members of my book club resorted to listening to the audiobook instead. The result was that while I struggled and unfortunately failed to read the book in the agreed upon duration, the audiobook consumers finished it effortlessly, listening to it on their daily work commutes.
The research on comprehension whilst reading compared to listening to audiobooks is interesting: Dr Art Markman and Dr Bob Duke, of the University of Texas, Austin noted, “When you read something, you are looking at symbols on a page, and your brain is busy filling in all the blanks. Like the sounds of the voices, the scene, the inflexion, the deeper meaning, the plot, etc.” As for audiobooks: “Because you can’t go back and reread something, you’re much more likely to do a better job of trying to extract the gist of what someone meant when you’re hearing them than when you’re reading.”
Cue huge sigh and rant about how books and libraries will become obsolete in the not so distant future by me. While reading doesn’t need to have strict rules about what types of reading actually ‘counts’, there is still value in conventional reading as our inner voice and imagination is active whilst we read, filling in the nuances between the words on the paper.
Books are also ecologically friendlier: “The earth metals we’re using up to build e-readers and tablets are not just rare but highly toxic. And think about all that energy needed to run servers and cooling fans. And remember, trees are a renewable resource,” a Washington Post article points out.
In the end, everyone is entitled to their own opinions and this is a divisive topic. You are either someone who reads books by the page or someone who consumes books by percentages. For a bookworm like me, the grain of the paper, the smell of ink and the weight of the book will always hold a special place no device can replace.