You are on a train, taking about 45 minutes to get from Point A to Point B. You take out a slightly-worn copy of The Handmaid's Tale. Your neighbour is also reading but on a Kindle. The person across you seems to be doing the same thing with a smartphone.
The traditional method of reading is said to be disappearing. For some people, reading digital text is more convenient and in some cases such as children's fiction, customisable. This behavioral shift can put publishers at a disadvantage. Why would they continue producing something that is heavy and hard to ship?
Looking closely, however, if you reach for a paper book by default, do you indeed belong to the minority? In 2013, only three out of 10 people in the United States preferred paging through paper books. Recently, the growth of ebook and audiobook users has reached a plateau. The Pew Research Center reported that 65% of Americans consumed content the traditional way, more than double the share of those who preferred digital products: the ebook (28%) and the audiobook (14%).
In response to the printed word, our brain develops focus, full attention to details like plot, and reading comprehension. But online text has one clear advantage: it is the quickest way to gather information. It is downloadable anytime, anywhere. And digital devices now serve as libraries on the go.
But it also has its limits. For one, not all readers are tech savvy. Though users prefer multipurpose devices such as smartphones and tablets over dedicated e-readers, any of these options will stop working without power. There are also the possibilities of software failure, data deletion, and password loss.
If we also want to retain and enhance our critical and analytical skills, we need deep reading and study. There are no conclusive studies that say we cannot perform deep reading via reading online text. But we have ones that support the positive impact of printed text on our intellectual development. If anything, we have to bring up the value of print online, particularly on social media.
Traditional meets digital
More and more businesses are courting social media influencers and ambassadors to widen their reach. But advocates of traditional reading can also emerge from these groups.
For instance, Tai Lopez, an entrepreneur and investor with close to one million followers on YouTube and more than 500,000 followers on Twitter, launched a show across his channels called Book of the Day. Lopez sees reading as a means to "absorb the wisdom" of authors -- alive or dead -- those who have gone before him in certain life areas. In his TEDx talk, he shared a few tricks on how to read one book per day. He said he usually checks the table of contents to determine which chapters to go through. Then he focuses only on the parts that are relevant to his needs.
Celebrities can also help promote the habit by raising awareness and driving conversations. Harry Potter star Emma Watson featured in several videos leaving paperbacks and hardcovers around New York, London, and Paris. Her feminist book club, Our Shared Shelf, partners with an organisation called The Book Fairies, which hides second-hand or donated books in public spaces.
Lastly, today's readers are more empowered than ever thanks to new technologies. They have access to online platforms such as the subreddit /r/TrueBooks and Goodreads. Here, they can interact with their favorite authors during dedicated Q&A sessions and get title recommendations from fellow readers.
Are physical books becoming obsolete?
If we were to ask Watson, Lopez, or some print-loving members on Goodreads, we might hear a "no" straight away.
Our society needs optimists who not only recognise but also remind us of the value of print. For all the talk regarding its possible demise, the format still offers the most immersive reading experience -- with digital as the most distracting, though Kindle falls in the middle.
Academics like Maryanne Wolf are hoping physical books do not reach their end, for readers' sake. Wolf, who is director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University in Massachusetts, told BBC in an interview in 2016 that "she hopes that we continue to maintain a bi-literate society -- one that values both the digital and printed word." We need the latter to carry on with a full reading brain circuit, "one of the most important contributions to the intellectual development of our species," she added.