Saturday, April 27, 2024

Are people buying and reading fewer books?

© Images and Video: Prashant C. Trikannad

Is buying and reading books a declining art form and a cultural tradition?  

It certainly appears to be the case in this digital age where, I assume, people are reading ebooks (if not paper books) and listening to audiobooks and podcasts. Ebooks are more accessible and convenient to read.

As we do at every opportunity, my wife and I recently visited a book sale close to our place in suburban Mumbai. Under a large shamiana (or tent), there were hundreds of thousands of books, mostly paperbacks in near-mint condition and lined neatly in rows, their spines with titles facing up. As book exhibitions went, this one was quite impressive. The collection ranged from classic literature to contemporary bestsellers, and everything in between.

Except for one thing.

The books seemed to be merely on display rather than for sale — during our visit there were mostly casual browsers who sauntered in more out of curiosity than a genuine interest in purchasing books. They would leave after a few minutes and make their way to the other attractions like the colourful handlooms and handicrafts in the adjoining tents.

For over a decade now, the only people I have been discussing books with are my family members and online friends who blog about the fascinating books they read. Almost no one in my circle of acquaintances seem to be reading books. If they do, then I don't hear about it often.

Here are five reasons why people are probably no longer buying or reading books as much as they used to.

  • Digital media, in the form of social media, smartphones and streaming services, are more entertaining and provide quick, short-term diversions for leisure.
  • There has been a decline in reading culture, particularly among younger generations, possibly due to a reduced exposure to books within their families and in daily life. My wife and I, like so many of our generation, grew up among books and they have stayed with us into adulthood.
  • People frequently tell me they don't have the time to read owing to their busy schedules, constant multitasking and tedious commute.
  • The attention economy — the digitally-driven information overload — is also likely creating attention deficit as people seem to be struggling to focus on long-form content, such as books. Conversely, social media posts, videos and stories that last only minutes are more appealing and engaging.
  • Physical books are perceived as less accessible and more expensive compared to ebooks, particularly in places where bookstores and libraries are scarce. Indeed, bookshops and even secondhand bookstalls are disappearing. Besides, not everyone can afford to purchase books regularly.

While book sales may be declining because people are either not buying books or reading fewer books every year, they are still engaging with various forms of online content including social media posts, articles, blogs and webzines.

This means that books are still around, only our reading habits and preferences have changed. It also means that my wife and I have book fairs almost entirely to ourselves. And that's not such a bad thing, after all.

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