My primary school was destroyed during the Clydebank Blitz of the Second World War. The 1960’s rebuild which I attended doesn’t quite carry the same historical resonance, but the former infant school next door served as a relic of the original building. When I attended school this was a library. This is where I read my first Roald Dahl book –The Enormous Crocodile – and where I discovered Jacqueline Wilson (a momentous occasion for any young reader, I’m sure you will agree). Drive past that landmark today, however, and you will see nothing but a surface of thick black tar: we all love a new car park, right?
Books are being squeezed from our lives. The government’s cuts to public funding has seen the closure of over 200 public libraries since 2012 and the imminent threat of more next year is likely to follow suit. Perhaps the most heartbreaking aspect to this narrative is the fact that these closures hit the working class most prominently. As the playwright and activist Lee Hall warned: ‘Working men and women… have fought, generation after generation, for the right to read and grow intellectually, culturally and socially… It is a heritage that took decades and decades to come to fruition but will be wiped out in a moment.’ Whether it be the shut-down of libraries or the closure of independent books stores, the eradication of the physical paperback is one of the most prominent transformations of our time.
Anyone who travels by public transport will have been witness, no doubt, to the images of this transformation. Commuters in rain soaked jackets, bags and briefcases sat between their feet, each hunched over their own little rectangular screen. I once sat on a train where I counted over fifteen Kindles all simultaneously in action. Sometimes mine is one of them. I was surprised (and I truly mean surprised) when my parents handed me my own little e-book for Christmas in 2010. Since then, despite my previous scorn, my Kindle, in its little flowery case, has accompanied me on planes, trains and by the pool-side on summer holidays. They have their advantages and I believe they have their place in our modern world. However, this Christmas I think you should read a book; a real book, with paper. This is why…
I’ll take you back to my primary school library. Perhaps I am an example of the nostalgic student, gazing back with rose tinted glasses, but my memory of the children’s section is of a colourful, wondrous haven. This was, of course, a time prior to the pressure of reading lists and deadlines when reading for pleasure was a genuine reality. Reading from an e-book will never accomplish the same feeling which I had as a child. I’ll never feel as settled, as cosy, or as comfortably at peace holding the light weighted, grey screen and pushing an arrow button as I do with the simple turn of a paper page. Nor, are these just my sentimental musings. A Europe-wide research project presented its findings in August of this year claiming that ‘readers absorb less on Kindles than on paper’. The study found that the psychological sense of progression which reading from paper affords amounted to a better understanding of the plot, character and overall atmosphere of a text.
Writer Will Self offered a similar view in an impassioned column in The Guardian in October of this year, arguing that the rise of the electronic reader is altering (not entirely negatively) the ways in which we, as readers, consume. He writes: ‘reading on screen is fundamentally different from reading on paper, and just as solitary, silent, focused reading is a function of the physical codex, so the digital text will bring with it new forms of reading, learning, memory and even consciousness.’
In a world where we are bombarded with consumerism fantasies and inescapable pressures a book, with its absence of advert breaks or warnings of a dying battery, is often the only real escape we have. This week Bloomsbury Publishing released an endearing YouTube video entitled ‘Give the Gift of a Book this Christmas’. I could easily write one thousand cynical words about the corporations capitalising on Christmas: the bombardment of discount sales, commercialised jingles and videos of Black Friday mayhem tarnishing the wholesome image of The Most Wonderful Time of the Year. However, the increasing trend of book giving festivities is a consumerist campaign I feel rather less pessimistic towards.
Whether you use your local library or support an independent book shop, whether you’re buying as a gift or as a treat to yourself, turn off the e-book (for now) and read a real book. Maybe make it Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, there’s nothing better for this time of year.
This article was originally published in Qmunicate magazine, 12th Dec 2014