Do we read differently now? Amid the fear and excitement of digital publishing – the panic over what it might mean for makers of books, and the exhilaration over what the gadgets can do – it seems to me that one of the most intriguing questions is whether, and how fundamentally, digitisation has altered the way we read.
Recent news that sales of printed books have plummeted in almost all markets across the world, while in the UK sales of ebooks have soared, comes on the heels of Jonathan Franzen’s alarming pronouncement at the Hay Festival Cartagena that ebooks are damaging society. But in the United States, sales of digital books have slowed. To anyone trying to read the runes of this fairly new market, it seems like a case of hearing the bad news before the bad news: either printed books are dead, or no one is reading at all.
I don’t think either of those things is true. Reading has always been extremely personal – people are fast or slow, immersive, digressive or meticulous, they like dog-eared paperbacks or first editions. There is no end to the range of preferences, and in many ways the digital revolution has merely added to a repertoire that has existed since the practice began. My objection to Franzen’s comment is that there is very little point in lumping all digital forms of reading together. Now that we’re a little way in to the phenomenon, it should be possible to give up the basic Luddite-versus-technophile argument, and see that while some innovations are truly groundbreaking, others are simply not good enough.
For example, here’s a speculative interpretation of those sales figures: e-readers such as the Kindle are excellent for what is (somewhat snobbishly) known as “recreational reading”. In other words, if you feel an overwhelming urge to read War and Peace on your way into work, you would, in 2012, be wise to carry it in its slim digital version. It follows that the greatest decline in printed book sales has fallen in the realm of fiction. (Sales of all printed books in the UK dropped by 12 per cent in the first four weeks of this year; sales of printed fiction in particular dropped by more than twice that amount.)
But if, say, you’d like to quote from a book and make a note of the page number, or have any kind of concrete sense of how much you’ve read, then the Kindle is frustrating. Knowing vaguely what percentage of the book you have read (which is what the Kindle tells you) is not the same.
I hesitate to criticise the device, because it has too many converts for that to be a winning game – already, critics of my acquaintance have countered that you can mark your favourite quotes easily, and that you can search for occurrences of words or phrases in a way you would never bother to with a printed book. What’s more, the new Kindle Fire tablet promises to be entirely different. But I personally find that the current version fails me in paradoxical ways: it mimics a book too closely to introduce me to any new kind of reading experience, and it also seems not to respect too many of the pleasures of a volume of print.
When I had to read more than a hundred novels for the Man Booker Prize last year, the most obvious thing was to keep them with me on the Kindle 3 that all members of the jury were given for the purpose. But I found myself becoming so impatient with the device that I worried whether it was influencing my view of the writing; the only way to judge the books fairly, I felt, was to read them all on printed pages.
In my experience, it’s an essential component of reading that one should be able to see around the corner. With a Kindle, Jane Austen would never have been able to make a joke like the one she drops in at the end of Northanger Abbey, nodding to her readers about the novel nearly being at an end: readers, she wrote, “will see in the tell-tale compression of the pages before them, that we are all hastening together to perfect felicity”.
This is not a technophobe’s problem; it’s one that technology needs to solve. And it is – I would venture – the reason why ebook sales have slowed among those who were the first to catch on.
On the other hand, the app of T S Eliot’s The Waste Land produced by the seers at TouchPress is a watershed moment in the history of scholarship and digital capacity. It offers not just the final text, but critical notes that were previously published in a separate volume, a facsimile of Eliot’s manuscript as annotated by Ezra Pound, also previously to be found in a separate book, and a number of audio recordings of the poem, including two made by Eliot himself and one by Ted Hughes.
Unlike an ebook, an app – or at least, this app – understands reading and thinking as a multidimensional experience. It respects the past, the process, the interpretation, the debts of intellectual descendants and the voices of the dead. For those who find the digital frightening, it’s worth pointing out the ways in which technology allows history to be preserved. The Waste Land app is a perfect example of the past and the future enriching one another.
It’s also the case that digital innovation can foster a revival in the art of traditional bookmaking, and has already done so. To take a very direct example, the app of The Elements: a Visual Exploration made by TouchPress has sold 275,000 units. As a result, their large-format hardback book version – which had before the release of the app sold only 70,000 copies and might have been threatened by it – has now sold more than half a million.
More broadly, things are settling to a point where the physical and the digital have a much more co-operative relationship. For instance, it’s a commonplace that people no longer print their family snaps because everything is taken on digital cameras; but now the ease of digital publishing means that, if you choose to, you can design and order up a much more sophisticated photograph album than you ever could before. Equally, digitisation is encouraging the growth of small magazines, fostering a new burst of creativity, and traditional publishers can print on demand. Schemes such as Faber Finds, an exceptional archaeology of lost books, haul up genuine treasures – for you, the individual reader.
In other words, the demand does exist, and what’s being supplied is, if anything, a rather traditional bespoke service. The more habituated we become to the virtual, the more we crave some physical trace of it, and the more that physical trace must seem worth keeping. As anyone will know from Neil MacGregor’s History of the World, the significance of objects and relics is not to be underestimated.
Pollyanna-ishly perhaps, this has been my theory about journalism as well as about book publishing: that while a newspaper's or a book’s digital incarnation may become the main event, the printed version is the merchandising – and therefore, potentially, what makes the money. Admittedly, “You’ve read the paper, now get the T-shirt” is a slightly improbable slogan, but I do believe that in special cases we will all want something of our own; and there’s nothing wrong with every edition striving to be a commemorative edition.
There is, after all, one thing that a digital experience can’t do: it can’t furnish your home with a record of what has passed through your mind. A friend told me recently that he had enjoyed – ironically enough – Franzen’s Freedom. The book is long and the hardback was heavy, so he read it on his Kindle. But then he found that wasn’t enough: he wanted to own a copy, to be able to see it on his shelf, to have the possibility of remembering in future who he was and how he felt when he read it. So he bought the physical book after all, and although he felt it was a little odd to have read it and yet never to have cracked the spine, he was glad.
This autobiographical element to reading bound books may be sentimental, but I don’t think it’s negligible. In fact, it’s one reason digital books will enhance and not kill them – though it may crush paperbacks. My colleague Shane Richmond, the Telegraph’s head of technology, has suggested that a lot of people would buy hardback books with ebooks if publishers bundled them together, because, as he put it, “a book is a souvenir of itself”. And, it seems, publishers are beginning to do that.
There is an opportunity for discovery in a bookcase. This is true of the contents of any library or bookshop, and it goes without saying that you can tell a great deal about an adult from the volumes on his or her shelves. But more formatively than that, because I grew up in a house full of books, I do feel that many of those I chose to pull down ended up making me who I am. And naturally I have worried: what, in turn, will my children say they found for themselves? For now, they’re lucky enough to have plenty of physical books to choose from. But beyond that, they may learn more about science and technology than I ever did, and they have already heard the voice of T S Eliot.
So instead of wondering if books are dead, perhaps we should be asking: were they ever more alive?
From The telegraph