Author and prolific reader Sarah Setlaelo sounds a warning that, as we march slowly to a paperless society, we may be throwing out the baby with the bathwater
Recently, my father, who is in his sixties, was surprised to come across his biology textbook from 1969.
Beyond the nostalgia that the book evoked, as he flipped through it, he found that much of the information in it was consistent with what he had applied throughout his 30-year career as a biochemist.
Even more intriguing for him was the well-preserved state of the book after five decades.
My father’s encounter brought to my mind the role books used to play in formal education and recreation and how that has since changed.
The irony of the evolution of books within society’s context is that, as we crossed the new millennium into the information age, this age-old mode of recording and storing information was becoming increasingly obsolete.
Besides school textbooks that are an intrinsic part of the education system, the consumption of other books for general knowledge and pleasure purposes is waning.
Environmentalists have diligently advocated a paperless society for decades now, lamenting the adverse effects of depleting trees and decimating rain forests.
The preservation of trees and allowing them to reach maturity and continue fulfilling their ecosystemic role, in principle, weighs more than their usage as paper.
Another argument for the abandonment of hard copy is the digitisation of information that is meant to simplify storage of the written word as well as to enhance instant accessibility to it.
Hence the decline of brick and mortar libraries worldwide.
As an avid reader from childhood, there came a time when I had read all the novels and general interest books in the school library.
To feed my compulsive reading, my father started taking me to the massive Johannesburg library fortnightly to borrow more books.
In this day and age, my yesteryear problem has been solved by access to an infinite number of books and articles available from websites and downloads, as and when I need them.
Like my father, I still have books that entered my life at various stages of my primary, secondary and tertiary education.
Many of my generation can think back to the Encyclopaedia Britannica collection of A–Z information that saw us through our schooling years for homework, projects and assignments.
Now, some of my cherished books are packed away in boxes that are mainly stored at my family home, while a selected few hold pride of place in my bookshelf.
In all honesty, I hardly spare a thought for those books, but there have been times when one of them was a useful source of immediately required information or bedtime re-reading.
Most of the time though, a simple Google search for required information has yielded millions of related sources that no physical library or book collection could match.
With the advent of digital information, there are the accompanying devices required to access it.
My first encounter with the internet was in 1996, during my university years, as I did not have a PC at home.
I was sceptical of this foreign source of information and bewildered by the process of searching for it.
The slow connection through external modems was cause for much impatience and the disarray of yielded results was off-putting.
I returned to my trusted university library where the shelves were systematically and neatly packed and the arrangement of textbooks, journals, newspapers and magazines was self-evident at a glance.
My foray into internet surfing would only resume when my working years began.
Since my university years, the sourcing of information on the internet has become incredibly sophisticated.
However, to date, I find that such information is available in snippets, fragments and summaries, as a multitude of both past and present full books is still not available online or as an e-reader.
As I am currently studying again, an online search for books I need for assignments often yields those that require PDF downloads at a price, in contrast to borrowing them from a library at no cost.
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Publishers of books are facing a crisis as fewer people are buying hard copy books.
In South Africa, where in the past a bestseller sold more than 10 000 units, the threshold has now dropped to 5 000.
Besides the fact that these companies and their author clients are no longer making a sustainable income from this medium, they now have to compete with online content writers who are neither experts nor passionate about what they write.
In essence, information has been dumbed-down. Short form has become standard and long form, old school.
First World early adopters of e-readers such as Kindle will laud the convenience of this modern way of reading.
The purchase of e-books through this device is currently higher than of hard copy.
Furthermore, it has proven to be a luxury available to high-end users and infiltration into the mass market has yet to gain traction.
Given that 60% of the world population possesses a smartphone, they too can access online library catalogues through their hand-held devices.
But the small screens, poor network and cost of data make for a rather impractical reading experience.
In addition, bedtime hard copy book reading that has soothed generations of readers and enabled them to drift off pleasantly into deep sleep would be replaced by a blue-light device that inhibits rather than promotes sleep.
I have attempted to show both the advantages and disadvantages of e-book consumption, to highlight the implications of the evolution of book reading, without advocating either hard or soft copy.
But there is one downside to online information that concerns a dedicated reader and writer such as myself – attention span.
The bite-sized information that has become the staple of internet consumption has bred a generation of non-readers.
What I mean is that a culture of scanning through what is displayed on our screens and skipping to the next page within three seconds if nothing grabs our interest means that our threshold for thorough consumption of information has become alarmingly low.
Unlike reading a book or a chapter from beginning to end to gain comprehensive knowledge of the subject, our society is exposed to a little of everything and, in many cases, content without context.
I will not get into how our e-reading has affected the standard and quality of our writing, where the average person cannot write without numerous spelling, syntax and grammar mistakes – largely because their memory has not been adequately exposed to correct sentence structure.
SMS lingo populates the internet through articles, blogs and social media, necessitating teachers, lecturers and managers at work to keep reiterating that such writing is unacceptable in formal contexts.
I concede that hard copy books are on their deathbeds. What I am advocating, however, is that the culture of comprehensive reading need not die with them.
Even if the bulk of books will soon be available in exclusively digital format for formal education, fiction and nonfiction, reading a book from start to finish allows you to steadily grasp the body of knowledge from past and present thinkers, so you can pass it on to future generations to build upon.
Setlaelo is a co-author of The Kelly Khumalo Story, a writer and a personal development speaker
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