An abridged version of this article appears in Vertigo magazine
Glowing screens hazily illuminate the faces of fellow commuters around you as the train trundles through a tunnel. Their fingers languidly swipe the screens of their devices, with facial expressions which oscillate between indifference to trivial bemusement at the latest YouTube video to go viral, or a friend’s latest exclamations on what they’ve caught so far on ‘Pokémon Go’. In your hands you hold a seemingly humble object in this sea of smartphones and gadgets. It’s a good old paperback, which may look a little worn around the edges since you’ve read it that many times. But you can’t beat a classic, right?
In this increasingly digital age where the online world so often encroaches on the real one, it can seem a marvel that books continue to survive as a source of entertainment. Before Facebook and Netflix were around as means of procrastination and distractions from the banalities of everyday life, books were one of the primary outlets of escapism. Even today however, it seems they continue to hold their own against technological competitors for our attention.
As of July this year, 85 million physical books have been purchased around the globe – 4.3 million more than last year. A large proportion of this is printed fiction which can provide that next addictive read which will keep those pages turning well into the night. This is not to say that prose published digitally is not without its own advantages; though the ‘print versus ebook’ debate is a whole other story. Despite the closure of major physical bookstore chains such as Angus and Robertson and Borders in recent years, others are still making their mark on suburban communities in many Australian cities. A glimmer of hope remains that the home collections of bookworms will not fall into an antiquarian abyss, merely existing as museums of times gone by. Any voracious reader will tell you that books have the power to transcend time itself while remaining relevant in any era. As the philosopher Thomas Carlyle eloquently expressed: “In books lies the soul of the whole Past Time; the articulate audible voice of the Past, when the body and material substance of it has altogether vanished like a dream”.
With this in mind, books can be understood as a reflection of our past, present, and future. Authors such as Charlotte Bronte and F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote aptly of both the joys and malaise which came in hand with their own societal milieus. Reading books like ‘Pride and Prejudice’ or ‘The Great Gatsby’ hence provides the opportunity for us in the 21st Century to travel back and gain some understanding of the issues populations faced back then. Often, it’s easy to see that as people, we haven’t really changed that much. Though context certainly evolves, the nuances of human nature as illustrated through literature remain recognisable no matter when a reader sits down to read a book. We’re all sure to come across a hopeless romantic like Jay Gatsby at some point in our lives, or perhaps strive to have the wit and intellect of Elizabeth Bennett.
But it’s not just the ‘classics’ that deserve all the recognition. Books being published now also hold great insight into our world as we know it, which can then be appreciated by future generations. The 2016 Stella Prize winner, ‘The Natural Way of Things’ by Charlotte Wood for instance brings issues of misogyny and the portrayal of women in the media into harsh focus with a harrowing and heart-provoking tale. Thrillers like ‘The Girl on the Train’ by Paula Hawkins are renowned for plots that keep readers guessing and twists that leave the plot reeling. Almost every book has a memorandum which you can learn something from, if you’re willing to delve deep enough. Pick any sci-fi novel like ‘Brave New World’ by Aldous Huxley or piece of speculative fiction and you’ll find a fascinating ‘prediction’ into what the future may look like in a hundred years’ time or more.
In any case, reading isn’t simply reserved for the highbrow literati of society. Anyone can discover that there’s something undeniably special about holding a book in your hands and entering another world with only the bounds of your imagination guiding the words as they leap off the page. Yet bookworms are ordinary people too, often with other diverse interests that reside in the digital world as well. Even I don’t always turn to a book when I want to relax or take a break from study. I too have binged TV series on Netflix, flicked through my social media feeds when I have a spare moment, and spent hours staring at my computer screen writing blog posts. As a generation, incorporating digital media into our lives is inevitable, and can provide us with a different kind of utility. Nonetheless, when I choose a book to read it’s not because I’m actively taking a stance against technology. Instead, it’s because I find that immersive reading can spark an entirely different sense of wonder which in that moment couldn’t be eclipsed by an alternative digital distraction.
Reaching the end of a chapter before your stop, you look up from the page and can’t help but notice a welcome anomaly in the carriage. Seated a few rows across is a fellow bookish traveller, their face lit up not by a screen but the simple pleasure of being totally engrossed in a good book. Just as you get up to leave, your eyes meet and you share a knowing smile. There’s a camaraderie to be felt, for you both know your next favourite read will never run out of battery or experience technical difficulties. It will still be able to stand proud on your bookshelf in the years to come, waiting patiently for the next time you’re willing to fall into its pages and experience the magic all over again.