Tue 12 November 2019
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Reading the future: Digital books and what's to come for literature
Far from killing off the physical page, the rise of ebooks has enhanced our understanding of the written word and the people around it, says Gaby Wood

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.

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The Telegraph
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