Digital book sales in the UK jumped 66 per cent to £411m (€476.4m) last year while printed counterparts fell by 1 per cent to £2.9bn (€3.3bn) in the same period. This is a worrying trend if, like me, you think that physical books are more meaningful than files on an e-reader or pixels on a screen.
A book is a personal thing. It’s part of our own biographies and carries a meaning far greater than the sum of its parts. At home, a dog-eared copy of a Graham Greene novel given to me by a friend sits beside a copy of On Photography by Susan Sontag from two Christmases ago. There’s a second-hand issue of The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry that I bought myself after gifting a copy to my niece, dwarfed by an unopened Paradise Lost I’ve carefully avoided since school.
Before these titles rest, spine showing for all to see, they are the product of a very social exchange: a gift, a recommendation or a “loan” you might never see again. They remind us of a stolen hour on a cross-country train or a faraway terminal before a delayed flight. Regardless of their content they speak to us of familiar faces, jolly holidays and chance encounters. Where we buy and read them is a memory in the making, sometimes spurred by an unforeseen rummage in an unfamiliar bookshop. The point is, discovery can’t be simulated by scrolling through a website or by scouring thumbnail images of book covers.
The haphazard exchange of books can be charming, sentimental and perhaps most importantly – tangible. These items travel with us before finding their space on the shelf. We understand our relationship with the medium best when we scan through our collection and absorb the collective meaning of the experiences these volumes represent.
Unlike a plastic e-reader, what we keep says a lot about us. Bookshelves can catalogue our histories, predilections, whims and aspirations: books we’ve read sit alongside ones we intend to and (if we’re being honest) others we don’t. The gift, the unexpected find and the impulse buy are as legible to their owners as the titles on their spines.
Despite the convenience of tablets, I think there’s more to be learnt from perusing someone’s bookshelf than seeing their download list. Long after the battery has died and a shinier competitor has replaced the e-reader, paper-clad, page-worn books will still be telling stories beyond the capabilities of their electronic counterparts.
Josh Fehnert is a researcher for Monocle.