Most of us at Michigan spend the beginning our semester solving the problem of textbooks. They’re expensive and generally worthless after the class is over. As an English major, though, I appreciate that most of the books I need to buy are works of literature that I can read again and again even after I graduate. The required texts section in the syllabus feels more like the professor sharing his or her favorite books with you than anything else.
For personal and economic/corporate reasons, there is something very anti-literature about e-books, and I find myself stuck between wanting to fit in with my English major peers (who post about their favorite bookshelves) and wanting to save my money. As soon as I find the Kindle version of a book on Amazon, I turn into your average penny-pinching consumer. The e-books are cheap and instant. The books will be there, loaded on your app, ready to go.
Of course, before I make any purchases, I ask about my professor’s policies on textbooks, which he or she rarely specifies in the syllabus. “What is your policy on e-readers?” And while I’m at it, “What is your policy on electronic devices in the classroom?” If possible, I never print my readings, and instead do all my analyzing and annotating with my tablet and stylus; same goes with the e-book. I, among many other consumers, quite like having all my texts stored in a single app and accessible anywhere via the cloud.
A survey back in 2013 found that 62 percent of young people (ages 16 to 24) preferred print books to e-books. I don’t find this particularly surprising, since we were alive before electronic texts, and one of the fondest memories that my age group experienced was reading the Harry Potter series in its original printed version. There is something about a physical book, people say. The smell, the feel of the pages. There’s this weightiness to it that can’t be replicated in digital texts. I think, however, a better survey will need to be conducted on the generation after ours that grew up with the Internet and everything in digital form.
I may have more in common with this new generation than with my own. I grew up with a closer relationship to the screen than to the page. Everything I physically wrote down or drew or recorded, I also stored onto my computer. This summer my mother assigned me the project of scanning all of our family photos onto the computer, because we both agreed it was more “permanent” on a hard drive. I was also not a reader when I was little. My relationship with books was, for some reason or other, difficult. I actually didn’t read Harry Potter until the end of high school. And speaking of high school, I got through my English classes with Sparknotes (this is not something I’m proud of, to be clear).
I know it might sound ridiculous to say, but I feel, in the same way some people feel for physical books, this weightiness about digital media. That almost feels comedic to say. Like saying there is something about the heat of the laptop on the desk or the glow of the artificial Kindle text in my eyes.
My point is that there are people — a good 38 percent of us — who approach the book business from a different angle. People who, maybe like me, have returned to literature but with a different perspective based on their upbringing. These people clearly matter; they affect the market for literature no matter how much traditional lit lovers may object. These people, whether they realize it or not, are at the forefront of what literature may become in the future.
I don’t think of this as a bad thing, though I am clearly biased. All art forms change, rejecting or renewing or transforming the old ways as the newest wave of consumers sees fit. Each new generation answers for itself, “Will this form survive? How much longer can we keep this going?” From my position, I do think we can keep this alive for at least a while longer. I believe the e-reader invites an influx of new readers (such as myself) who have found a certain accessibility with the screen that they couldn’t experience with the page.
Jenny Wang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.