The Power of Books in the Age of Digital Technology

By Francesca Lombardo.

In a historic period where technological developments and new creations are the order of the day, where new smartphones and cleaning robots appear on the market at the speed of light, my thoughts keep drifting back to printed books. I have been a reader as long as I can remember. Being a millennial, I have witnessed the technological changes that have occurred over the past couple of decades not only on the surface level but also on a cultural one as well.

I keep thinking about the history of books, how their importance has evolved and grown throughout the centuries, and how we are currently experiencing a “back to the origins” period. At first, when digital technology was booming, I was amongst those people who questioned whether printed books were going to disappear and be completely overrun by digital books, seeing the rise of e-books and e-readers. Admittedly, for myself, I bought an e-reader – not because I thought it was a perfect substitute for books but because I saw the appeal of saving money that I would otherwise constantly spend on buying books. At the time, I hadn’t discovered the wonders of charity shops and second-hand bookshops. Moreover, being able to carry my e-reader everywhere came in particularly handy during travels, a feature that I found – and still do – particularly useful.

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While using an e-reader has not changed my love for printed books, I find myself toggling between the two. On the one hand, I recognise the valid point of not only saving money when downloading an e-book but also the speed and ease of being able to do so. However, I cannot deny the satisfying feeling that comes from holding an old book in my hands. It’s empowering. It’s relaxing. It’s overwhelming, knowing that by going through the pages, I can enjoy the feel and smell of the paper. Besides the sensation of being absorbed by the story that I am reading, being part of that other world, era, and place that the author has created is (in my opinion) quite irreplaceable – especially, not by a hard and cold screen. Even before reading a book, the action of selecting and buying one and of going through the shelves and shelves of books in a library or a bookshop is such a gratifying experience that not even the best of smartphones could replace it.

In the past year, I have felt more drawn to printed books than ever before. Not that this feeling ever disappeared or that I ever stopped reading for more than a month. Rather, maybe I have been too distracted by technology, realising just recently how much it has been influencing my life. I feel drawn back to the past, a past when books were the best thing you could get your hands on and when you would never get tired of them.

Yet, technology has made me forget all these things. The digital culture has become such an integral part of our daily lives that we have become more and more impatient towards anything that we cannot have immediately. Not only that, looking at a screen every hour of every day has had an impact on both our mental and physical health. A survey conducted in 2016 and published by Literature in Britain Today shows (not surprisingly) that 51% of respondents said that they were too distracted by the internet to spend time buying and reading a print book.

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While book retailers and publishers have seen a steep decrease in sales because of the rise of digital books, this decline has slowed down in recent years until it has completely stopped. According to a BBC article, while Kindle sales had an enormous peak in 2011 with over £13.44 million in sales, figures from 2014 show printed books sales in the UK were at over £1.7 billion against £393 million of e-books with the latter accounting for only 30% of the market for books.

Of course, one could argue that reducing printing means not cutting down trees and creating paper, thus supporting environmental efforts. Although this argument seems intuitively correct, it is not as simple as that. For one, deciding to buy an e-book over a printed book doesn’t necessarily translate into reducing one’s individual carbon footprint because you also need to consider the costs of charging and replacing an e-reader, not even counting the waste of materials and energy is used for producing one.

According to an article published by Omega, the effect on the climate is no different than reading print books if you read 100 books on your e-reader before you upgrade. If you read fewer books before upgrading, your carbon footprint will be higher and if you read 200 books on the device before upgrading, the climate impact will be halved. Therefore, when choosing to go print-free, one should consider various factors and remember not to be disillusioned in believing that choosing digital over print would definitely save the planet.

While everyone has their own opinion about print versus digital books, I believe that the power of a good book in your hands – to relax, to get away from the digital world, and to let your fantasy travel – is never going to die.

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