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A month for book lovers

A month for book lovers

Do you love books ? Do you love reading ? If you already know that reading makes a full man (or woman) then this month (September) is for you. Here in Sri Lanka and in many other countries, September is celebrated as the Literary Month (sometimes also called Literature Month) , headlined by the International Day of Literacy on September 8. In most countries, this event is preceded by Read a Book Day (September 6) and Buy a Book Day (September 7). Yes, worldwide, a large number of children and adults cannot read and cannot unlock the magic of books. This day focuses on the efforts to teach millions of such individuals to read and write in their own languages. Luckily for Sri Lanka, more than 90 percent of people are literate, which is an admirable rate for a developing country.

Once you know how to read, there are millions of opportunities to learn about the world around you, literally at your fingertips. Books are usually our first window to the outside world (some of the youngsters reading this may beg to differ, saying it is the Internet) and transport our minds to exotic destinations, both, imaginary and real. Of course, you have to know how to read to even use the Internet, which makes reading one of the biggest and most important skills for life in the modern world. In Sri Lanka, September is a dream come true for all book lovers, because that is when several book fairs, including the Colombo International Book Fair, are held. This year, it will take place from September 21 to 30, almost 10 days. Record crowds are expected this year as well, given that the attendance exceeded projections last year.

Many new locally published Sinhala and Tamil books will be launched, along with the latest English fiction and non-fiction books from the UK and USA. It is a must-attend event for all book worms, young and old. Outside of the book exhibition, most bookshops give generous discounts during September so you can stock up on a few books you always wanted to read.

But, now, thanks to the Internet, you do not even have to go to a bookstore to buy a book. All you need is a Kindle or similar device with a reading app and you can download thousands of books.

My Kindle can probably hold around 3,000 books and I have only around 200 books in that. Electronic devices have certainly made reading more accessible and easier, but have they made it any cosier? The truth is, most of us still love to read printed or “dead tree” books – we like the smell of paper, the rustle of pages as they turn, the cover and illustrations and of course “the feel” of a physical book which no electronic reader can emulate. Besides, physical books require no batteries and no backlight, though they do take up space on your shelf or backpack.

A recent study by the University of Arizona found that research participants “described being more emotionally attached to physical books, saying they use physical books to establish a sense of self and belonging”. Book lovers in this study lamented the loss of “book smell” that accompanies the use of e-books, and participants also touched on other important aspects of book ownership: the use of bookshelves and the ability to augment the pages of a book with marginal notes. Participants described being more emotionally attached to physical books.

They also talked about experiencing physical books through multiple senses - describing, for example, the sound, smell, and tactile experience of opening a new book. Nevertheless, there are some distinct advantages of e-books – there is a built-in dictionary, you can share your notes in social media sites and font sizes can be changed. The lit-up models can be used in total darkness as well.

In fact, in the same study, older users with fading eyesight cited these as major advantages while the younger readers just brushed them off. The participants said, the e-book reader makers should focus on making the e-reading experience to more closely emulate the experience of reading a physical book, which might require making physical changes to e-readers that make it easier to do things, such as, scribble notes in the margins.

They were also told to distance e-books from physical books and focus on establishing e-books as a unique form of entertainment - more of a service-based experience that includes features you cannot get from a physical book, such as an integrated soundscape.

Just as the MP3 generation has now embraced the analog (and ancient) recording format of LP records, the younger generation is discovering the joy of physical books. And just like an MP3 track, you never really own an e-book.

The digital file is controlled by the supplier or publisher of the e-book and it can be erased remotely. However, once you buy a book, it is yours for ever, the only shortcoming being that it might get faded or torn after years of use. (The same applies to audiovisual physical media such as CD, DVD and LP). Reports indicate that in most countries, physical book sales have overtaken e-book sales after several years of growth for the e-book sector.

Surprisingly and paradoxically, some e-books are priced higher than their hardcover counterparts, which do not help the cause of e-books. It might end up on a 50-50 equation as buyers continue to flock to both markets, depending on their requirements.

And do not be put off by that “dead-tree” label – most books are now printed on almost 100 percent recycled paper, certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).

There is another alternative, though it does not involve reading per se. The audio-book sector – where books are narrated by professional voice actors – is thriving as many people do not have the time to read. They can just download an audio book of their choice from a number of audio book sites and listen to it while driving or travelling on the train and even in bed at night.

The only downside is that some books can take as much as 20 hours to finish and reading it yourself might actually be quicker. Again, audio-books can be more expensive than their print counterparts due to the higher cost of production and professional fees.

Note that you can already alternate between the e-book and audio-book seamlessly on such sites as Audible, which is owned by Amazon. In fact, most e-books already come with a free or heavily discounted audio file as well.

I do not think physical books will fade away, even though e-books and e-book readers (colour e-book readers are on the way) will get more advanced over the next few years. E-book design will also improve, with embedded audio and video.

But, the humble physical book will stay on. We are an emotional species that still likes physical things. And, what finally matters is that people will continue to read for centuries to come, regardless of the medium. So go ahead, select a book, curl up and read on.

(Sunday Observer)

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