The future of books in a digital age

By Amy Whitaker

In 2011, author Ewan Morrison expressed in the Guardian his bleak opinion that ‘within 25 years the digital revolution will bring about the end of paper books’. With Amazon’s launch of the Kindle four years previously, an undeniable seismic shift in the way people were reading books was underway as e-book sales skyrocketed between 2008 and 2010. However, while the digital age has seen the demise of many older technologies (I don’t know many people nowadays who would choose to go out and buy a new film on DVD over streaming it online, for example), the traditional printed book has so much value to readers as a medium of storytelling and information that it’s very difficult to envision it ever being replaced.

The rise of new technology like iPads and Kindles, as well as access to social media as a platform for anyone to publish writing of any kind, has done incredible things in recent years to transform the literary scene into one that is considerably more accessible and – to a certain extent – affordable for authors and readers alike. The miserable year of lockdowns that was 2020 saw a 24% increase in e-book sales in the UK, while audiobooks are continuing to emerge as an exciting, highly entertaining new way to consume both fiction and non-fiction (the Daisy Jones & The Six audiobook comes highly recommended from me). Since printing books unfortunately requires cutting down trees, it also can’t be ignored that publishing digitally is significantly more environmentally responsible. For these reasons and many more, the impact produced by the digital age on the bookish world is something to be celebrated rather than seen as a threat. Indeed, those anxious about the future of physical books have nothing to fear – 2021 book sale figures for both the US and the UK show that print remains the most popular book format, alongside the number of independent bookstores in the UK and Ireland growing for the fourth consecutive year.

To me, an avid bookworm and self-confessed bibliophile, these statistics come as no surprise. The intimacy and sensory experience of reading a physical book simply cannot be matched by any other form of media. It is something I believe people will never tire of: from turning the first page, to the comforting smell of fresh ink or the sweet musk of library books, to breaking the spine halfway through (or trying your hardest not to, but if you’re that kind of reader then I personally don’t trust you). There’s also a great sense of ownership that comes with reading a physical book and so much joy to be found in building up personal libraries as a record of all the stories you’ve lived in and knowledge you’ve acquired.

The intimacy and sensory experience of reading a physical book simply cannot be matched by any other form of media.

Most importantly, however, reading physical words on a page is one of the only means of complete solace and escape from the snare of the online world that we have left. As we spend more and more time each day looking at a screen for both work and leisure, books provide us with a vital, grounding sense of connection to ourselves and one another. Young adults of my generation are even more hungry for tangibility now that the internet is such an unavoidable cornerstone of our lives, evidenced by the resurgence in vinyl record players and typewriters as well as our obsession with printing off physical photos to stick in scrapbooks or on our walls. In fact, 63% of physical UK book sales in 2019 were to people under the age of 44. Meanwhile there is something uniquely special about reading a second-hand or library book that’s been lived in by readers before you – even more so if you’re lucky enough to find a copy with its previous readers’ thoughts annotated in the margins. That feeling of closeness to a piece of art just cannot be replicated across a screen.

That feeling of closeness to a piece of art just cannot be replicated across a screen.

Books may no longer be the basic unit of storytelling, but I disagree with Morrison’s belief that an increasingly digitalised and fast-paced world points to their ultimate demise – in fact, the opposite may well appear to be true. I believe books will and should continue to be enjoyed in a myriad of forms, but there will certainly always be a rich and endless novelty (allow the pun) to the printed book.

Image: Frank Holleman via Unsplash

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