Venture into a cafe or travel on public transport these days and you’re as likely to find people staring at a piece of plastic as you are with their nose in a book.
E-readers are becoming ever more commonplace; Amazon’s e-books have been outselling hardbacks.
It’s impossible to tell what someone is reading behind the grey, uninspiring casing of an e-reader. These gizmos have spoiled a favourite way to pass the time on a train journey: trying to guess what a stranger is like by their choice of reading.
Coloured leather covers for e-readers can’t replace the flourish of colour and design boasted by real books.
Aesthetics aside, they have had a more serious impact on book sales generally and charity fundraising in particular. Sales of traditional paper books have declined by 4% in the last year, meaning there are likely to be fewer books around to be donated to worthy causes.
Donated books earn £21 million a year for Oxfam. This revenue is quite a considerable contribution towards their aid work to overcome poverty and suffering across the world. Naturally, the decline in sales of traditional paper books is a concern for them.
Oxfam’s Rose Marsh said: “We are conscious that the number of books being purchased new is decreasing. E-readers are increasing in popularity and will continue to do so.”
Rose also points out that e-readers are at the moment only good for fiction; anything with images is better in paper form, which would seem to offer a glimmer of hope for traditional books.
However, it is inevitable that technology will catch up within a couple of years and offer books across every genre in all their glory.
As you’d expect, Oxfam takes a proactive approach to deal with a risk to a rich source of income. They support the book trade, as they need them to sell new books for people to buy and then donate when they have finished with them.
The charity also asks people who have bought an e-reader to donate their physical books to them.
Rose continued: “There are plenty of books out there. We are looking at ways to make it easier to donate.”
Oxfam has been encouraging people to give their unwanted books a new home through the annual books donation drive and promoting donations at work. An incredible 30,000 second-hand books were donated at this year’s Hay Festival.
Besides helping good causes, charity shops are an excellent way to help feed a reading habit without breaking the bank.
Unwanted gifts often find their way there, meaning you can often nab a book, still in pristine condition, for a fraction of the RRP. Recent bargains include a hardback book for a mere £2.
I am a voracious reader; being hungry for a good read makes trips to bookshops expensive. Of course, I have my favourite authors, but love making new discoveries.
For me, part of the pleasure of buying a new book is to be found in browsing and having a cover catch your eye. I’m unconvinced that pressing a button to download a new addition to an e-reader offers such a level of satisfaction.
Being unable to leave a bookshop empty-handed means I have quite an extensive collection of books, of nearly every genre. I love the range of colour offered by their spines stacked alongside each other. The rather high ‘to read’ pile offers a thrill of anticipation.
E-readers are changing the way we treat books. If I’ve enjoyed a book and think a friend will also like it, I share it with them.
Downloads can’t be handed around; your friend will have to purchase the book if they are going to share your recommendation.
That’s good for the publishing houses and the economy, but bad for the time-honoured tradition of sharing literature amongst fellow book lovers.
Books I don’t enjoy get another chance at life by being donated to a local charity shop. With an e-reader, your only option is to hit ‘delete’ to make space for more deserving titles. That seems quite wasteful.
I’m not a complete Luddite; I can see that e-readers have their advantages. Investing in one means you will no longer have to risk exceeding your baggage allowance because of a stash of holiday reading, or weigh down your bag on a train trip.
The decline of books is disheartening. However, while technology is changing the way we buy and deal with books, my hope is that the resulting portability of literature will help more people discover a love of reading.
A final thought: if all your reading is now on an e-reader or tablet, spread a bit of cheer by having a de-clutter and donate your unwanted books to your local charity shop.