Is reading on a screen that different from reading on a page?

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Photo: Arun Sehrawat
Photo: Arun Sehrawat

Yesterday at THiNK, Tina Brown announced the death, or at least the dying gasps, of the word. You can see her point. Perhaps the magazine as she has known it is dead. But the word itself, John Makinson, chairman of the newly merged publishing juggernaut Penguin Random House, assures us is in robust fettle. The signs are that people are reading as much as ever. The publishing industry is a stable one. “If there was an absolute decline in reading,” Makinson told Tarun Tejpal at their session this morning, “that would be worrying.” What has changed, what has provoked all the anguish about the death of the book is that sales of physical books in major markets like the United States and Britain are down but that can be accounted for by the corresponding steep rise in the sale of e-books.

“The move from the printed page to screen,” Makinson says, “is not a particularly significant thing.” Indeed, e-readers like the Kindle, faithfully, conservatively reproduce the experience of reading a book. Readers don’t even want many multimedia bells and whistles. For publishers, technology is not so much a threat as another business opportunity. The Penguin Random House merger is not a huddling together from fear but a consolidation. “Scale”, Makinson says, “was going to be a huge asset. The access to technology and talent would be an asset to both readers and writers.”

Publishing has not been affected in the manner of the music business which is in retreat, the habits of fans changed by technology. Readers, Makinson points out, still want books rather than chapters, still value the book as a physical object. Publishers also have the same valuable curatorial role to play as they always have. This doesn’t necessarily mean telling people what to read, though that is part of it, but in enabling writers to be found by readers.

What is at threat, Makinson suggested, is the large chain bookstore (not a serious problem in India) and, more interestingly, the way in which we read. Immersive reading, he said, might be on the way out, the ability to sit with a long novel and just read it through. We are more distracted today and the way we read will come to reflect that. But is there any other way to read than immersively? To sink yourself into the text, however it is presented?

Amazon, Google and Apple have perhaps revolutionized publishing but it’s all in the back-end, in distribution for instance. But what will not change is the heartening fact that people will always want to read, listen to, and tell their stories.

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