Are e-books eroding the popularity of the printed word? Aparna Karthikeyan talks to book lovers to find out

Book lovers, steel your heart. We have distressing news. Amazon.com tells us that, officially, its sales of Kindle books have surpassed those of paperbacks! The printed book, we're afraid, is rapidly going the way of typewriters, horse-drawn chariots and long, lacy petticoats — far too unwieldy and way too slow in a world whose mantra is ‘keep it short, snappy and iPad compatible'. But, before we rushed out to order the tombstone (‘The Printed Book', born — AD1455; killed in an e-mishap — AD 2011), and sent out e-invites for the ‘book burial' on Facebook (RSVP / ‘like' the event; please do not ‘poke'), we thought we would ask around — is the printed book really dying?

Best friend

As Groucho Marx wisely said, a good book is all the company you will need when life gets a bit pear-shaped. And Sanjeev Sridharan, associate consultant, rationalises that the e-book is but a shift in the way the written word is presented. “I accept it as a technological evolution similar to the transition from palm leaves to paper”. And yet, he personally prefers reading hard copies of books, because digital outputs are “a strain on my eyes; besides, I already spend far too long in front of the monitor!”

Kalaivani Ramalingam, a gynaecologist, confesses she is very much an “old-fashioned reader” who enjoys “the back cover browse and the front cover detail” before actually buying a book. Which, interestingly, was an experience that others too touched upon! “I buy books in-store once I stumble upon them, and read the plot/ reviews on the back cover. That tendency to browse is never going to go away,” says Sujata Ravi, who is pursuing a PhD in Bioengineering.

And yet…

Millions of e-book readers have been sold across the world, and e-books are currently garnering as many or more votes as paperbacks in some markets. Surely not everybody who is switching-over is hysterically worried that forests are being slashed and burnt, and rabbits are being rendered homeless because of the paper industry! The truth, it appears, is a pragmatic combination of eco-consciousness and convenience.

Vignesh Mohan, management consultant, endorses this view, and talks about the ease of carrying around any number of books everywhere, without worrying about weight or volume, undoubtedly a huge advantage while travelling! “Plus e-book companies offer book previews (something like the first 45 pages of a book) and I can choose to buy the book if I like it. That's not an option with the traditional printed books!”

But Dr. Kalaivani argues that while she can “see the appeal for the jet-setters”, she says she personally “cannot imagine reading a book without the smell of the new paper, the crisp page turning according to the tempo of the book and when it is all too intense, taking a sneak peek at the last page!” Agrees self-declared Luddite, Madonna Devasahayam, economics editor in Washington, DC. “I adore books and cannot imagine a world without them. Bookstores are not just shops to buy books: they're what Ray Oldenburg called a ‘third place,' the first being home, the second the workplace, and the third, a social place where people hang out and enjoy an outing and a sense of community.”

And the experience of visiting bookstores, says Sanjeev, is not a patch on browsing titles on a webpage. “Looking up books on your e-reader is hardly the same as the sight of people searching for books in a bookstore, hurriedly browsing through a few pages to get the essence of the book,” he adds. “Moreover,” says Sridhara Sudharsan, IT professional, “using e-book apps on my android-phone wasn't that much fun; I really missed the physical feel of the book. Plus, I'm doubtful about the cost-effectiveness of buying e-books in India.”

“I doubt if e-books can ever replace books,” avers Sujata. “Because, when you flip through a traditional book to completion, it feels like you've actually accomplished something!” And while, says Madonna, people who think books take up too much space have a splendid solution for that clutter, and those who love gadgets have another toy to indulge in, books, she says, will not become extinct. “There might be fewer of them; human beings are tactile creatures, so the feel, smell, and look of books will remain appealing for a very long time to come.”

Keywords: Facebook