Closing the book: Reading in a digital age

Closing the book

First aired on Ideas (28/6/11)

Since the dawn of time, people have been reading and telling tales. Early civilizations carved messages and stories on walls. Indigenous cultures around the world relied on word of mouth. And although our youngest readers might not remember this, people once wrote stories by hand. When Gutenberg invented the printing press, the way we shared stories changed drastically. Handwritten manuscripts became printed publications and although it caused much upheaval at the time, books as we now know them became accessible to more people.

Now, the publishing industry finds itself facing relatively new technology that again will change the way we read. In the past few years, the use of e-readers has grown exponentially. Amazon paved the way with its Kindle, making room for e-readers from Sony, Barnes & Noble, and in Canada, the Kobo from Indigo. With the influx of digital readers, sales of downloaded books have also seen a huge increase, and the publishing industry has been turned on its head.

While some readers, writers and publishers have embraced the new technology, others claim to love the book as we've known it. In a recent episode of Ideas, producer Sean Prpick investigated whether the new digital age marks the death knell for the publishing industry or is the gateway to new opportunities. "Closing the book" asks an important question about reading and books: is a book still a book when it's no longer between covers, or even on paper?

Prpick traveled to the Book Expo to listen in on panels that discussed the publishing industry's approach to digital books. He spoke to a wide variety of people who offered a wide variety of views, but a few common themes rose to the surface. Publishing executives, including Jason Epstein of Random House, acknowledge that "the publishing industry has not yet come up with a digital strategy."

However, publishers are having to adapt, and quickly. When The Sentimentalists won the Scotiabank Giller Prize last year, no one could buy the book. It was printed by a small publishing company and its supply could not meet the demand. When Kobo quickly made the book available as a download, sales soared and more people had the opportunity to read Johanna Skibsrud's novel.

And in the end, isn't the point to get people reading? Jeff Barber, the director and CEO of the Regina Public Library, thinks so. While Barber acknowledges that the book has been the primary mechanism for reading, he's quick to point out that it's not about the book. "It's about the information. It's the access to the world outside and an engagement to society."

What do you think? Is a book still a book if it's a digital file? Have a listen to this provocative episode of Ideas and let us know in the comments.

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