If matter is in form, does form matter?

For the umpteenth time this year, The Guardian has published an exultant article on how books are back, trumping e-readers and cocking a snook at the latter’s technodazzled supporters.

Published: 21st May 2017 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 21st May 2017 07:26 AM   |  A+A-

For the umpteenth time this year, The Guardian has published an exultant article on how books are back, trumping e-readers and cocking a snook at the latter’s technodazzled supporters. It’s got reason. New data suggests that the reading public in the West is increasingly turning its back on its Kindle and kin, and re-embracing the old-fashioned written word. By West, I mean the US and UK largely; Europe does its reading largely offline.

According to the UK Publishers’ Association, sales there of e-books dropped by 17 per cent last year while paper books and journal sales went up by seven per cent. The pattern was similar across the Atlantic, where sales of e-books reportedly plunged by 18.7 per cent over the first nine months of 2016 and print books rose by three per cent. Amazon alone sold 35 million more print books in the US in 2016 than it did in 2015.

In India, the scene is slightly different as the number of e-reader users here is still small enough not to impact paper book sales. (If anything’s done that, it’s been demonetisation, but publishers are hopeful that things will improve in the rest of 2017.) Publishers everywhere have attributed the enhanced sales to the younger generation, which apparently (surprisingly?) likes to do a ‘digital detox’ every now and then, and chooses hard copies over e-readers while reading for pleasure.

But the publishers themselves have also played a big part in luring back readers by enhancing their production values, and getting in new designers to create tomes with beautifully textured pages and covers with original artworks. The fact that the bestseller of the day is the adult colouring book, which works best in print form, only helps.

Personally speaking, I’m glad that books, with their gorgeous covers and ivory pages, are here to stay. After all, every dog-eared book tells a story that’s got little to do with its contents. The smudges on my pages remind me of meals I had while devouring a story; the crinkled pages of water drunk (and spilt) because of my reluctance to take my eyes away from the book for even a minute. Old markings in margins fly me back to the mood of that long-gone moment; of the words and phrases that spoke to me at that first reading.

But I must admit that I’m partial to e-readers too. I love the fact that I can load as many books as I please on my Kindle, and it will still weigh only 161 gm. I also love knowing that as long as I have a wi-fi connection, I can buy and read whatever I want to, whenever I want. No more trips to book shops, no more waiting for my bookseller to get me the Sudden series that no one else seems to want.

Moreover, the touch and feel of the paper book is important to me only until I get immersed in the reading. After that, it’s only the content that counts. Not the cover, not the font; not even the point size. I know I’m not the only one who feels that way. Which leads me to believe that what readers really want are not better-looking shops or covers or pages, but just quality content. Toss them that and books are here to stay. Form immaterial.

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