Or have readers segued from the physical to the digital book? Munmun Ghosh explores
One’s best companion is a book. We grew up on this adage. Seeking, buying, borrowing, devouring, discussing, gifting, cherishing and literally living books. But no more. Suddenly books have gone off our hands, desks, conversations – replaced by a small gadget called the smartphone. Smart indeed it is, to uproot an entrenched habit of many generations. Then is the species called book lovers truly extinct now? Or have readers just segued from the physical to the digital book in new Digital India? As Book Lover’s Day (August 9) approaches, it’s time to read the fine print…
Strand Book Stall, Mumbai’s iconic book store finally shut shop earlier this year, unable to match the changed scenario. By itself, emergence of online book store is not a negative – rather an enabler for book lovers. As English Professor Aruna G, exults, “I am now buying and reading more books than ever before, my life is heaven because of Amazon and Flipkart. During my college years, often I could not lay my hands on books I wanted, books by my favourite authors. Now, I can get them all.” Young corporate executive Geraldine Cruze echoes her opinion, “Amazon has made it so easy to buy; gives us more options, discounts, so I rarely visit Crossword any more. I buy books online.”
However, though access is easy and choice enormous, the desire to read books is challenged today by easy availability of other sources of entertainment and knowledge, the two factors that drove traditional immersion in books. Subha Gupta, a confirmed bookaholic as a student and now a corporate employee, confesses, “Earlier, we would read books to entertain ourselves. Now, with lack of time, I rely on Netflix, YouTube, and Facebook, basically on my smartphone to entertain myself. I still like the thought of a book and a cup of coffee but have no time to indulge the thought.”
Gunjan Naithani, who would run a book club online, is also cold-shouldering his old love for similar reasons. “Between laptop (a work necessity), Android phone, and television, my eyes get too exhausted and I am generally too tired to read books any longer.” Varsha D’Souza, who swore by books for years, admits to not having bought even a paperback in recent years. “My pleasurable reading has gone down drastically because of social media.” Forget professionals, even the young college-goer is turning away from the book. Says first-year Arts student Simran Jaggi, “Mostly when I get free time these days, I visit social sites instead of reading books as the latter needs more concentration. Social media has definitely affected my reading of books.”
There are contrary voices. 21-year-old Sneha Gupta: “I’d read books before going to sleep since my childhood, and I continue to do so to date.” Documentary filmmaker Bishakha Dutta: “I’m doing both, social media (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) and books. It’s not an either-or situation for me. I read a lot of long essays online but am still reading fiction widely and buying books. I do read on Kindle and my I-pad but holding a book in my hand gives a certain pleasure that I don’t get when reading on-screen. There’s something beautifully settling about holding a book and turning the pages, one after another.”
Indeed, this is one aspect on which all readers feel alike. The physical book is still preferred by majority of readers to an e-book. Readers like to buy books online, but not peruse them on their mobile or any other screen. Elaborates Bishakha, “A physical book engages many senses, the feel and smell of paper is a big positive. Some books have decorative elements which you enjoy and then the bookmark enhances the reading experience.”
As far as the content of books is concerned, focus has careened largely from fiction to non-fiction with even young readers reaching out for books on psychology, self-help, management, philosophy, education, etc. “Today I would rather read books on economics and leadership than fiction,” affirms Geraldine. Among books that still beat the competition, crime fiction and mythologies by Indian authors emerge on top. “The last novel I read was a year ago — Jeffrey Archer’s Kane and Abel.” Subha Gupta puts out the reason bluntly, “If I can watch Sacred Games on Netflix, then why would I read the book? Netflix means much less effort.” With their huge presence in different mediums, films have largely appropriated the space that fiction claimed in our lives not so long back.
Writer and filmmaker Rajesh Kumar Singh attributes this preference to the fact that “films are sensory experiences.” He analyses, “Films impact you visually and aurally and are designed to make the engagement easy by employing various performing and visual art elements. They have always been preferred and it won’t change. But we rarely hear people say that a film based on a novel was better than the novel. It shows the importance of the written word. Books are competing for attention with not just films today, but with sports, music, news channels that are avidly watched.”
Perhaps, nothing tell-tales the churning that has happened like the indisputable dissolution of the book as a gift. When was the last time any of us received or gave a book as a gift? “At one time, gifts meant books,” rues Varsha D’ Souza. “Today, a huge variety of gift products have pushed books out of the market. Even my school-going children have not picked up the habit of reading books.”
The silver lining in the cloud is that though book-reading is declining, the habit of reading itself remains sturdy and is indeed gaining in strength in this digital age. People are reading more than ever before and even writing more on-screen. As Aruna G. informs about her students, “They are more well-informed than we were at that age. They are reading a lot, maybe more on their tabs, and maybe different kinds of books. Of course there is a certain section who will not read. Nothing worrisome.” And Rajesh Kumar Singh hails the total democratisation of the reading and writing process. “The amount of reading material that’s getting generated on the internet and on various social media platforms and through blogs is mind-boggling.”
While the book as a form is for sure under trial, it is equally true that books still possess a lot of muscle to fight back and are far from extinction. Long live the good old book and its many lovers!