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Kindling freedom from the printed book — and a colony of termites

| Updated on: Aug 14, 2016
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The romance of the printed book that envelopes me every time I dip into my personal library has in recent years been tempered by the realisation that it isn’t just I who savours my books. A colony of termites has made public its appreciation of my PG Wodehouse collection — by gnawing right through it.

Like Yossarian, the quirky character in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 who, while on duty as a war censor, whimsically deletes vowels in the letters written home by men on combat duty, the termites appeared to have selectively chomped out prepositions and indefinite articles.

In desperation, a few years ago, I remember looking heavenward and wailing out aloud: “Will no one free me from the tyranny of printed books — and philistine termites?” At precisely that moment, there was a clap of thunder — and, half a world away, Amazon announced the birth of the Kindle!

Okay, I dramatised that, but who doesn’t savour the freedom from the logistical limitations of printed books and the joy of carrying an entire library of e-books in the palm of your hand? E-books and other channels of digital publishing have additionally enhanced the book-reading experience.

What we’re witnessing is a revolution no less significant than the Printing Revolution that Gutenberg ushered in centuries ago. In the early years of the era of the Kindles, the Kobos and the Nooks, the market for e-books grew exponentially: between 2008 and 2010, e-book sales rose 1,260 per cent (on a low base).

And although that scorching pace has since moderated, e-books and their variants have established themselves as the future of book ‘consumption’. Increasingly, books are being read on not just e-readers or tablets, but on mobile phones.

Publishing companies are already responding to the changing marketplace and expanding the universe of book readers. Says Durga Raghunath, CEO of Juggernaut, which has, in the short time that it’s been around, redefined reading and writing for the digital age: “Digital books will get new readers: those who seldom think of walking into a bookstore, but read a lot on the web.”

Hybrid readers

The book-reading universe today is made up of hybrid readers, who switch between devices and the printed book. Writer Amish, author of the Shiva Trilogy and Scion of Ikshvaku, says he juggles physical books and e-books. “I’m agnostic,” he says. But if his seven-year-old son wants to read a book on dinosaurs, he’d prefer an e-reader on his iPad, he reckons. “Multimedia elements provide a rich experience; you explore the book the way you want, not the way it’s structured.”

Raghunath acknowledges that the printed book serves a function. “It works, for instance, when you’re on a vacation and want to get away from your phone.”

What will the future of book-reading be like?

“I think book publishing has to and reinvent itself for the multicultural Indian reader,” Raghunath cautions. And the pricing dynamics of the marketplace should also change, she reasons. “It’s because of book publishers’ short-sightedness that e-books have been priced at par with print.”

All that is, of course, in the future. For now, I’m basking in the glow of my back-lit e-reader, celebrating the wholesale absence of termites in my e-library. Freedom lies in the palm of my hand, and it sure feels good.

Published on January 17, 2018

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