To e-book or not to e-book

2011-04-21 00:00

I HAD four plane flights in 48 hours last week. To make good use of the time in transit I decided to plan a story based on one of Jane Austen’s heroines or villain. So I took my tattered copy of Pride and Prejudice along to while away the in-between hours and to get into the right linguistic state of mind.

As I sat on the metal seats, which are ubiquitous in boarding queues, I felt a need to be furtive when I took my yellowing paperback out of my bag. Alongside me people flashed laptops, iPhones and even bright and shiny Kindles. I couldn’t help feeling a little envious as I glanced at the man reading on his e-reader. So I hid my book under cover of my laptop which I’d opened in an attempt to show that I, too, am a thoroughly adapted 21st-century person.

Of course, that started me thinking about books and whether they’re going to be extinct in a few years from now. Will my children laugh at me for giving them a book for Christmas? If I give them an electronic book, will that automatically make it better?

Then there’s another development I noticed in a recent lecture to students. I’d asked them to write down their ideas for a film script they had to write during my course. The older members of the group produced pages of hand-scribbled notes within minutes. The younger ones, those who were in their early 20s, stared at me blankly for hours. No amount of coaxing could get them to scratch more than just a few words on their almost blank sheets of paper. I was anxious, thinking that this batch of students wasn’t going to produce the script required in their allotted time. So I decided to fast-forward the process and asked them to begin typing up their work — or lack of it — in the facility’s computer room. What a transformation.

As soon as the young students were seated in front of the beautiful Apple Macs they morphed into writers. Words flowed from their fingers and they caught up to the others with just a few swirls over their keyboards. That’s when I realised: the younger generation think more clearly with a screen in front of them. Whether it’s a cellphone, an iPad or a laptop, their brains switch into gear as soon as they are placed in front of an electronic device.

Is this necessarily a bad thing? If the majority of reading and writing today takes place on a screen does it matter? I don’t think it does. Unless we run out of power on an international scale and all electronic devices become obsolete, of course. But until then, at least the youth are literate. In fact, some educationists say that even though some youngsters may use cellphone abbreviations when they write or text, they are much more at ease expressing themselves through the use of words than their parents’ generations were.

But why did I feel ashamed of my ancient book in the airport? Yes, it was a novel by an author who’s been dead for two centuries. And yes, it is such a very tattered and yellowing book that it could merit a tag attached to it, explaining its origins like an artefact from the past. The thing is, I felt so much more comfortable reading my tired old paperback than I would’ve done reading an e-book on my laptop.

Books are a source of comfort and peace to me. My earliest memories of reading are of my mother trying to potty train me and my brother. She would give us a page of a comic book and tell us to sit on our potties until we’d finished “reading” it. Engrossed by the illegible words and bright colours, we’d stay seated until the deed was done. Those were rare moments of quietness in our busy toddler lives, even if there was an ulterior motive. We graduated to real books without any motive soon afterwards.

My mother would read to us at first and I devoured my way through my own choices as years went on. Books have always been a part of my life. I love their physicality and I’m not happy unless I have at least three stacked on my bedside table.

So although my old book may have looked out of place in the airport, I thank my mother for instilling a love of books in me. And I hope I can instil the same love of words in my children, even if they prefer their books electronically.

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