Paperless or Paperback?

Deputy Features Editor Catriona Aitken debates the merits of e-books and audiobooks, and whether they will ever stack up to the timeless quality of paper.

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Gabrielle Wolf

There’s nothing quite like picking up a recently printed, paperback novel and inhaling its newness. It may be a little cliché, but I immediately feel calmer, knowing I hold a whole other world in my hands. In fact, coincidently, even as I sit here and write, I am overhearing a conversation between two friends about how book covers draw you in, and how it’s so easy to buy so many but unfortunately, never actually find the time to read them.

A few years ago, I was gifted a Kindle, and I found that while the instantaneous nature of the e-book download was nowhere near as satisfying as browsing a bookshop (and certainly worse for my bank account) the lightweight advantage of the e-reader was a saviour when travelling.

As an arts student, I find it increasingly difficult to find the time and motivation to read for pleasure.  When I was younger, my parents used to play audio books, borrowed from the library in cassette form, during car journeys.  This was most likely their solution for avoiding the otherwise inevitable chaos of sibling fighting, or cheesy boy band tunes, or the never-ending whine of “Are we nearly there yet?”. In fact, I know that my younger cousin frequently falls asleep to the reciting of various Harry Potter books; the words, now familiar, lulling her into slumber.

However, it was definitely one of the factors from which blossomed my love of reading and literature, and now I am beginning to see a return to this pre-literacy story telling method. I tend to spend my journeys to and from classes listening to podcasts, perhaps world news or some sort of feature or documentary. I like to feel as though the journey has then been well spent, and it distracts me from the hike up the hill to my flat (often, recently, in the rain).

However, when my lack of energy for sitting down to read (after days spent in the library slogging through hundreds of pages of assigned text) has come up in conversation with friends, I have frequently been told that they listen to audiobooks on these short trips around town.

This allows them to keep up-to-date with the latest best-sellers, and still relax in front of the television during the evening.

In fact, I was scrolling through Facebook recently and saw an advert for an audio book download site describing itself as the “Netflix for books”. What are the various ways people access literature? Are we indeed seeing a trend from paperback to paperless?

The Saint conducted a social media poll which asked our followers for their preferred methods of accessing books. Out of 63 votes, 63 per cent of respondents opted for physical copies over e-books or audiobooks, and this majority view appears to be reflected among many others, for example the University of St Andrews Book Club.

The Book Club publicity officer and second-year English student Harriet Bass told The Saint that she feels her fellow society members generally opt for a traditional paperback. “I believe the general consensus in the Book Club is that nothing can beat the physical copy of a book,” she said.

The Book Club, which is a relatively new society, alternates between meeting for socials and books discussions, and encourages their members to try reading things they perhaps wouldn’t ordinarily choose.

“I am among the first members of the Book Club as it started at the beginning of my first year,” said Ms Bass. “I am involved in the Book Club because it is a fantastic way to enjoy reading for pleasure and make the most of books while studying a degree in English.

“It provides the opportunity to read books I would not have originally read and promotes the importance of reading for enjoyment in an academic environment where reading for pleasure may be undermined.”

This desire to find an outlet for her love for literature and to continue reading for pleasure, even when, like me, extensively reading for her course has led Ms Bass to personally opt for audio books.

“I think enjoying books for what they are is exceptionally important; I want to promote reading for pleasure. I love storytelling and want people to realise its potential as a part of our non-academic lives,” Ms Bass told The Saint. “I prefer to access books that I read for pleasure as audio books. This also helps to create a distinction between the books I study and the books I read for pleasure.”

Commenting on her preferred source for her Book Club picks, Ms Bass said, “Audible is an expanding market for accessing books and is where I access many of my books for pleasure.”

Only 10 per cent of our poll respondents selected audio form as their preference, compared with 27 per cent who opted for e-books.  While this indicates a low uptake currently, Ms Bass suggests that, rather than seeing a shift away from physical books, we are perhaps seeing more of a trend away from e-books and towards audio options as an alternative.

“I wouldn’t say I’ve seen a general trend away from physical copies of books. My siblings use e-books mainly for academic purposes and my family as a whole always prefers physical copies. Most of the people on my course dislike e-books.

“If anything, I have seen a trend away from e-books in friends and family members. Apart from accessing articles or online secondary reading, I very rarely use e-books.”

As for whether or not we are likely to truly become paperless consumers of literature, I don’t believe this will ever be the case, and neither does Ms Bass.

Despite her enjoyment of audio books, Ms Bass emphasised that she loves physical copies of books, and will, for example, always use physical copies to study with.

“I personally don’t believe books will ever go completely paperless,” she said. “The physical copy of a book – including its cover, illustrations, and binding – is too important an aspect of the text to ever be completely discarded in my opinion.”

While it is undeniably convenient to have the technology now to enjoy reading as a hobby, even while travelling or on the go, the overwhelming satisfaction of the book shop trip will never cease.

However, for now, perhaps it is time to make yourself a cup of tea or coffee, and sit down to absorb some work of fiction.

I better not say read a page or two, because that may well not be an accurate description.

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