“Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers.”
― Charles William Eliot
It is a balmy summer afternoon at Mitra Vana, a rustic farm on the outskirts of Mysore. Lying on her bed in the quaint farmhouse is Jayalakshmi Gopalan, doing what she loves most: reading. This is the third book she’s reading in the week. She had just turned 86, and had been showered with hoards of gifts from all four daughters: books, Ravalgaon candies in every shade available, bubble wrap (she loves popping them, I’m told), and a lilac Sungudi saree with maroon prints. They are neatly stacked on her bedside table, with the books up top.
“I was very excited when I saw the Ravalgaon candies, but when they brought out the loot of books, I felt like Christmas had come early!” she says.
She pauses for a moment to call out to her daughter who is seated at the dining table, also reading a book (perhaps it runs in the family?).
“I’ll mostly be done with these books by next Friday”, she tells her. “I’ll need more books.”
Books have been a steadfast companion for Jayalakshmi, ever since she was married off to an Army officer at the age of 19.
“My husband was away for the most part and would get posted in states where I did not understand the language. Reading kept me company till I could learn the language (sic)”, she says.
Those days, it wasn’t a quotidian affair for a woman of her upbringing to be a gluttonous reader, she states. Nevertheless, she did not give up on books.
“I encouraged my children to read voraciously, I tell off my grandchildren for staring at their devices more than reading some good ol’ books”, she chuckles. She also believes that e-readers come nowhere close to holding a book in hand, turning the pages, slipping in a bookmark.
She believes the reading habit is waning among the populace and believes that the Internet is solely to blame.
But what might surprise her, and most of us is the latest World Culture Score Index released by NOP, which claims that Indians read the most.
Surprisingly, the UK and the USA do not figure at the top of the list.
Before delving into the nitty-gritty, here are some facts and trivia about books and book publishing:
- The number of book titles published worldwide, since the invention of the printing press, is 150 million
- The book publishing industry is the largest media and entertainment industry: the estimated value is $ 151 billion. Compare that with the film industry – $ 131 billion, video games at $ 63 billion, and music – $ 50 billion
- Though India ranks first when it comes to reading, it constitutes only 2% of the global book publishing market. The USA takes the major chunk at 30%
As for the reading habits of Americans, here are some eye-opening statistics:
According to the survey, the average American read only 12 books in 2015.
But the average American adult still fares better than the average Brit: in UK, the median is 10 books in a year (2015).
Another detail that draws attention is the use of e-books for reading: In the USA, only 6% of the total reading population are digital-only readers. One would think they would have a larger number of readers consuming content digitally. Nevertheless, e-book sales are expected to constitute 25.8% of total book sales globally, in 2018. Could it be that the aversion towards e-readers held by Jayalakshmi, an octogenarian, is shared globally, even by millennials?
Some e-book statistics
In the USA and the UK, e-books are expected to surpass the sale of print by 2018. Which is still a lot lesser than you would expect, given the rapid adoption of technology in the West.
Did the world ditch e-readers for traditional books?
According to a report that was released this year by The Publishers Association, consumer e-books sales have dropped by 17%, while the sale of physical books went up by 8%.
Let us back up a bit and look at the rise and fall of Kindle:
On November 19, 2007, Amazon launched Kindle, its e-reader. In spite of the initial misgivings, Amazon sold the devices out in no time, and was forced to put up a notice that they were out of stock till December 3, due to “heavy customer demand”.
It was no surprise that it sold out so quick: there you are, travelling in a creaky Indian Railways train, lugging around a pile of precious books, and someone tells you, you can have all of that in a single, lightweight device. Having a Kindle was a marker of “cool”.
“The physical book had become quite a cheap and tacky thing at the turn of the millennium,” James Daunt, Managing Director of Waterstones, said in an interview with The Guardian. He says that publishers “cut back on the quality of the paper, so if you left a book in the sun it went yellow. They were gluing, not sewing. They would put a cover on a hardback but not do anything with the hard case underneath. Nowadays, if you take a cover off, there is likely to be something interesting underneath it.”
The rise of Kindle also led to studies that looked into how reading habits and benefits differed between people who read from print and those who read from an e-reader. One study came to a conclusion that Kindle readers were “significantly worse” at recalling events in a story they read, in comparison with their paperback counterparts.
Anne Mangen of Stavanger University, Norway, who is the lead researcher of this study, also cautioned the world against assuming digitally natives perform better at academics.
“I don’t think we should assume it is all to do with habits, and base decisions to replace print textbooks with iPads, for instance, on such assumptions. Studies with students, for instance, have shown that they often prefer to read on paper,” The Guardian quoted her.
So how did Kindle fall from its glory?
One reason could be, as this article points out, the rabid need to tell the world you are cool. Type in “book” in the search bar on Instagram, and you find countless posts using the tag #bookstagram. To be more accurate, 1,54,49,828 posts.
One can find users posting photographs of the book they are reading. Or, photographers using books as aesthetics. The latter is more of a trend, as can be seen from the results (image on the right).
In short, books are being seen as beautiful objects, that add drama to an otherwise boring scene. They are being used as a signifier of intelligence.
“I have brains!” screams pictures of men and women, who could easily be supermodels wearing Harry Potter spectacles and carrying bulky hardcovers, in all probability for a photoshoot.
“Part of the positive pressure that digital has exerted on the industry is that publishers have rediscovered their love of the physical,” says James Daunt.
Another reason for the decline of e-books could be that children’s and young adults’ books are on the rise. There seems to be a resistance among parents towards their children using e-readers, too.
To quote The Guardian:
‘Daunt’s children “can stick their noses in a book and they are lost in that book”. But when they try to read on a digital machine, “the allure of Snapchat pinging away, it’s a disaster. They think it’s a disaster.” ’
The Indian Scene
In homeland India, parents on Senior Reading Raccoons, one of the most active and enthusiastic book clubs on Facebook, regularly hold conversations on whether or not their children should start off on Kindle. And the humble, traditional book always emerges victorious with a resounding majority vote.
What do Indian readers think about e-readers?
When it comes to how they consume, adult readers, at least as far as the Raccoons are concerned, are divided.
In India, e-readers work out cheaper than their paperback counterparts. Kindle even offers specific titles for free.
For some readers, however, this is not incentive enough.
“Paperback and hardcover. I loathe Kindle (sic)”, says Manoj Narayanan (27), member of Senior Reading Racoons. “They don’t give me the feeling that books do. I am of the old school; I like holding my books, feeling their size and storing them in my bookshelves. Also, I find it easier to read from paper than from a screen. Don’t think a screen can ever give me the same comfort (sic)”, he explains.
Manoj is also part of a book club that functions the old-fashioned way: they meet every month at a cafe or sometimes at the home of one of the members, and exchange books and book reviews.
Named “Chennai Coffee & Books Meetup”, the group has seen a steady increase in the number of members using an e-reader, he says. He has come to accept some of the benefits of e-readers. “I can read in the nights without turning the lights on. I can carry more books with me. And yes, no physical damage to the books, thereby increasing their life”, he admits reluctantly.
Solomon M, a 31-year-old HR professional, has a different story to tell. The Broke Bibliophiles’ Chennai Chapter, of which he is the coordinator, leans towards traditional books.
“The youngest member is 19 (sic) and the oldest member is 56 (sic). And all of us agree that nothing feels better than the ability to turn a page, or pass on a well-thumbed book to a friend”, he says.
Yamuna Soundararajan, 23, a member of Senior Reading Racoons, opines: “I’m a Luddite. And in this aspect alone, I don’t mind being one. I find reading on Kindle to be an awkward experience. It doesn’t feel like I’m reading a real book, you know? (sic)”
When asked to explain what she meant by “real book”, she gushes:
“Reading a paperback or a hardcover is just… nicer. They are also reminders of every journey a book takes you on. You can add notes as to who gave you a book, the occasion, the date… wouldn’t it be wonderful to pick up an old book from your bookshelf 20 years from now, see where, when, and how you got it? Personally, that would be very special.”
One thing that both sides agree on: reading is the most pleasurable activity in the world. To quote George R.R. Martin:
‘“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies”, said Jojen. “The man who never reads lives only one.”
Scientists too have come up with enough proof that supports the idea that reading benefits humanity:
Even if you set aside the scientific facts that rule in its favour, reading a book takes you on wondrous journeys, rich in culture and experience. The twirl of a skirt in a ballroom, the crack of a whip on a horse, the deep despair of separated lovers, the thrill of going through Forbidden Forests, the cold air blowing on your face as you ride a dragon… the number of persons you can be, and the emotions you can feel, is endless when you hold a book in your hand.