When I first started chatting, about the age of 20-21, I always introduced myself as a bookworm. I was an avid reader, and books were my closest friends, opening new doors to new wonderlands every time I turned the cover of a book. If I had a book back in those days, I’d overlook any other means of pastime and delve into the book instead. The genre or the author did not matter to me, as some prefer reading books of specific genres or authors. Growing up in Calcutta was ideal for whetting the appetite of a book lover with make streets laden with bookshops — old and new. Whilst the old books always made me sneeze, the fresh book smell was equally addicting as the books themselves. However, those were the glory days of my youth, and I now look at them through a rose-tinted glass of nostalgia. It feels like the memories and experiences would never be replaced. Yet, the time has moved on. We don’t use rolls of films in the camera these days; we listen to music on Spotify, not on our Walkman; we watch movies on Netflix and not on the VHS cassettes. Yet eBooks are one of the areas of technology where public opinion remained fiercely divided. I belong to one of the late adopters, vehemently against eBooks and e-readers, yet, at the threshold of transitioning into the electronic versions.
You can understand the reason behind the resistance to adapt. Reading a book used to be an experience. The smell of pages in a new book was hardwired within our brains to create a Pavlovian nostalgia. Not only that, but it was also about how we used to read. My first recollection of sources of books apart from what I had at home was a mobile library that used to cart a fantastic collection of books to promote reading amongst children. Then there were libraries – a place for friends to catch up, at times for lovebirds to find a cosy nook. While growing up, there were bookshops in Calcutta that redefined the reading experience. Somewhat at large with Waterstones, the Oxford Bookstore offered not only a fantastic collection of books of myriads of genres but also had reading areas, a café, and arranged book signing events and symposia. But it was a different time, and we were more social then than now. We have become a lot more private, quite happy in our virtual space, but not so much out in the open. So the experiences offered by reading and holding a physical book, soaking up the ambience, discussing your favourite books with a stranger in a bookshop — all such allures don’t attract people anymore.
The loss of contact affected our reading habits in another way, definitely so, looking from the Indian perspective. In our childhood, we used to swap books amongst friends, which meant that we could have a handful of books, but by sharing and interchanging through friends, we ended up reading many more. Book exchanges widened our reading experience significantly. Besides, it gave us the first taste of discussing the books we exchanged in the similar manner we’d learn to do in a book club later. One final aspect to add here about previous reading habits and practices is using books as presents. From birthdays to weddings, books were a natural choice. Not everyone liked reading books, but the value of books was perceived as higher than just their marked price, which is why people with a lower budget often would go for books. With changing times, books became a commodity and gradually lost their value.
The sections above may seem longwinded, but I thought it was necessary to provide a perspective on how our reading habits changed as well as the perception and value of books, which is essential when we compare printed books to eBooks.
When the e-readers started to take over the electronics showrooms, I looked at a few, flicked a few pages and thought, this is not for me. And apart from the early adopters, there was a lot of cynicism regarding eBooks and e-readers during that time. People, including me, were outraged at the fact that they dared to take away the other salient features that you won’t find in an eBook — the fresh smell of a new book, the appealing covers, the blurb and finally, the liberty to hold the book in your hand and feel it, turn a few pages at your ease before you decide which ones you want to take home and which ones to put back down on the shelves. Yet, many years down the line since the first e-readers arrived in the market, we know now that they are here to stay and will replace print books in the near future. For me, reading print books was a memorable experience, but I’m about to embark into the world of eBooks and all that for a good reason.
I have read eBooks since I started my job in 2000. They were mainly word documents or pdfs. You can’t really call them eBooks — they were instead pirated scans of books. However, the first time I came across eBooks was when I bought the first iPhone and discovered all the free eBooks that came with Kindle. I tried a few but didn’t like the experience on a tiny screen. Fast forward a decade, and wondering what to do during the lockdown, I registered with an online portal offered as part of our local library subscription. I found a few books that interested me, and once the first mental block that previously stopped me from progressing with Kindle was removed, I was taken by the eBooks. eBooks provided flexibility, above all, that we lack with print books. The ease of use, especially the bookmarks and features to search for meaning for words, also swayed my mind towards eBooks. However, the environment is the biggest reason that convinced me to the eBooks.
I recently read a book about climate change, and it helped me put things into perspective in terms of the carbon footprint of every activity we do. Even simple activities like reading a book could be utterly complex due to the very complicated supply chain we use now. The comparisons that I looked at assumed that we just bought a reader and some print books, and then they calculated the respective carbon footprints. Many factors had to be taken into account, such as the high carbon activities due to the manufacturing of the e-readers as opposed to the high running cost in the backlighting for a print book. We also need to look at the aspect of the end-of-life cycle. Whilst a print book can be easily handed over from one owner to another, an e-reader is generally dumped in the electronic waste, which in itself has its high carbon footprint, or we keep them, waiting to be thrown away at some point in time. Considering all these factors, the magic number was found to be 13. What it means is that for an average-sized book, e.g. format A, paperback, 300-400 pages, as long as we read 13 of them on an e-reader, the environmental impacts will break even. If you read more than 13, an e-reader will be more beneficial to the environment.
We also need to look at the commercial perspective of eBooks as well. Whilst comparisons exist for the price difference between the two formats, all such figures will be significantly skewed at present due to astronomical rises in utility and fuel prices. However, whilst there is a large initial outlay for e-readers, the prices are becoming competitive, and the cheapest ones can be found at around £50. Besides, eBooks can also be read on tablets, phones and laptops, which eliminates the initial cost. From the resource point of view, eBooks present an incredible advantage. It’s like having the world’s most extensive combined libraries at your fingertips. It’s not just the e-reader providers who offer this service; many publishing houses also offer purchasing, subscription and reading platforms to retain their erstwhile consumers of print media.
The final and most crucial aspect would be the social and cultural aspects of the eBooks. Despite the big outcry we hear from climate deniers, we are generally adopting a greener lifestyle. Besides, our lives have never been more dependent on technology and the internet. From these points of view, we can see how it is easy for people to switch from paper to e-readers. Our lifestyles are also continuously evolving, and most of these changes need us to rid of how we used to live or do things just because we liked it that way. We commute more now, which means more time to read in transit. The advent of audiobooks made this process easier. People even listen to audiobooks whilst working. We can’t exchange eBooks as their print versions, but you often get discounts for multiple purchases. We can still discuss books with friends and family as before because the medium of reading doesn’t depend on the content. Thinking of space, our houses are getting smaller, and we now focus on lean décor and having floor-to-ceiling bookcases doesn’t fit into that vision. We have also become more mobile and change the place, town, and country we live in quicker and more often than ever before. Having a lot of print books would mean a higher cost for transportation/moving. In the same vein, our holidaying habits have been revolutionised by cheap air travel. Whilst that in itself causes a much more significant environmental impact, I doubt that will deter people from going on foreign holidays. Whilst we travel more, the baggage allowances shrunk considerably. When we were at liberty before to carry 2-3 books in hand luggage, we can now no longer do so without paying, and an e-reader provides an obvious solution to that problem.
So, we can see that despite the initial uneasiness of adapting to eBooks, willingly or unwillingly, our lifestyles are now changing in a way where eBooks have become more suitable than print books. We can see the benefits of the eBooks and e-readers over the print versions, and whilst the nostalgia is there, being practical, we can get much more with the new avatar. Soon it won’t be about that magic number anymore; regardless of whether you read one book or 500, e-readers will become the natural choice.
As for my endeavours, I will adopt a mixed approach. For non-graphic books, I have stopped buying them, and the ones I hold, I plan to give to charity once I have read them, and there are plenty of them. As for graphic novels, e-readers don’t do them justice, but tablets or laptops can be used to read those. However, a lot of the comics I read and collect, mainly from the golden age era, are not available in eBooks, and I will carry on collecting the print copies. For me, the main driver was the environmental impact, but I will benefit a lot from the flexibility associated with reading eBooks. I already own a tablet, so for me, the magic number will be 0; even if I read one book on the tablet, it will generate a negative carbon footprint. Also, due to space, I keep all my books in the garage, in boxes, unindexed. To look for a particular book, I need to go through all the boxes; and I don’t even know which ones I own. Storing them electronically will completely eliminate all such confusion. The final factor in this mix is the reading time. The only time available to me for reading is usually the night-time. It is inconvenient to keep the bedside lamp on to read a print book. Also, I read 4-5 books at the same time, depending on location, time of the day and available time to read. For the near future, my target would be to read all print books that I possess and donate to charities and libraries.
What will then be the future of print books? I think the publishers will start printing fewer copies. With a shrinking demand, the cost of production will go up, and at some point in future, it will become untenable. The print industry, at that juncture, will begin to become obsolete. The same will happen to the bookshops as more and more readers switch to eBooks; the cost of overheads will make the shops challenging to sustain. With older books getting digitised and newer versions becoming solely available on electronic media, the libraries will also start offering more and more eBooks than printed versions, although this process will take longer. All such changes will make it harder for common readers to access print books. The books could be found in charity shops and in private libraries until they are perished and recycled. Print books will become collectable items with rare versions later sold at high prices. Gradually almost all readers will switch over to eBooks, willingly or unwillingly.
The above discussion about transition excludes one significant factor that is worth mentioning now; that is the economy. What scenarios we spoke about so far apply to the economically stable part of the population with excess income to spend on recreational purposes. Understanding a large part of the population, even in the most developed economies, are without that privilege, their only source for books will still be local libraries and second-hand book shops. Likewise, in developing and underdeveloped countries, the transition will be slower. With the cost of living going up and escalating demand for social presence, we wonder what the importance of reading will be in the decades to come. Will reading only become a pastime for the economic elite? When reading a book is no longer lucrative, the debate about print books vs eBooks will disappear as well. Gladly, we are not there yet, but with the increasing number of apps offering you 3-minute book summaries makes you think that that time is not far away.