Has the Digital Age Changed Our Relationship With Books? – A Comparison of Consumption

The scene is set; I’ve finished work, made a cup of tea, lit a candle and closed my bedroom door. Now to sit, relax and read my new book. But I just need to reply to my Nan, she text me last week and I never got back to her. Oh, I need to send that meme to Shannon before I forget. Okay, back to reading. God, it’s so quiet “Alexa, play ‘music for concentration’ ”. Oh, Amber has tagged me in something! You know what, I’m going to read it later. 

I know I am guilty of procrastinating when it comes to reading. Especially a book I’ve bought wilfully, with intentions of completing. I always have a myriad of excuses ready, to pardon and justify my avoidance of this activity that I set myself, for myself. “It’s just not the right time to read this book” or “I haven’t got the time to read this book”. I know I’m not alone in this infrequent reluctance and non-committal approach towards reading. 

Needless to say, the ever-evolving and increasing presence of digital content has had a fundamental impact in reshaping contemporary society. The internet offers an abundance of information, readily available at the click of a button. We are continually rewarded with instant gratification in concentrated, bite-size chunks of information. Some digital companies produce clickbait headlines that are often taken out of context and modified into easily-digestible fragments that favour speed and convenience, over quality and credibility.

The connotations of these recent technological developments have readjusted the ways in which we consume media. The encyclopaedic volume of accessible information offered by the internet can be overwhelming and challenging to navigate. This facilitates the value and appeal of such abbreviated articles. However, this ‘get to the point’ culture that is perpetuated throughout digital media remains instilled in our psyche, and informs our reading habits. 

Generally speaking, reading a book and reading say, an online article are two very different experiences. Both utilise contrasting incentives, which are in part informed by the separate format and formula of each medium. However, both require literacy, and therein lies the intermediate significance shared by these two mediums. There is a clear divergence in our methods of consumption between book and digital (with the exception of e-books and online journals). The book suggests we practise patience and stillness in our endeavour, so how do we readjust our mentality from the all-encompassing instant shortcuts of the internet (we have become accustomed to), to the conclusive, consequential qualities of a book? 

I use the example of online articles because this appears the most popular reading content we access on our devices. Once published, this content is then shared across multiple social media platforms, further extending its potential readership. According to an Ofcom report in 2018, social media is the most popular type of online news, used by 44% of U.K. adults. Whilst TV still remains the favoured medium of news coverage with 79% of the public’s preference, the internet is creeping behind with 64%, followed by radio’s 44% and the one source with the content in its name; newspapers received a humble 40%. This decline in sales for newspapers and our growing preference for online content exemplifies this reading discrepancy we experience between online and print. Though, granted some online sources are more thorough than others, it seems that the bridge between online and print is becoming less of a bridge and more of a tightrope. 

Where online sources are succeeding in regards to news content, according to The Publishers Association’s 2018 yearbook; 72% of people purchased at least one book (in any format) in the last year. The same poll found that 94% bought at least one physical book. In amongst this digital revolution of AI and smart devices, physical books are still selling and showing no signs of defeat. It could be argued that the book still holds a place in contemporary society as a conscious paradox to the internet and means of reassurance in its tangible conventions and irrefutable capacity.

This isn’t to suggest that our digital devices and books are our only limited means of literary consumption. We read everyday; menus, train times, posters and signs to name a few. Whilst they are brief, they still ask the same entry level requirements that qualifies you to read a book. Maybe not Finnegans Wake, but any autobiography from a reality TV personality in their 20’s (who must have lived quite a life to have 400 pages worth of compelling stories and life experience to school you on) at the very least. 

The stillness and definitive linear of a book, offers a satisfying equilibrium. However, the book also presents a juxtaposition between the physical control of the reader in their ability to open and close a book, and their limitations of control in regards to the content and subject matter. This could be a distinguishable contributing factor in our lack of commitment and concentration towards reading a book. In this digital landscape that allows us to curate and create our own content, it could be said that our patience for books is decreasing as our power of preference takes precedence.

Luke Applin