On the Pleasures of the Printed Book

Aidan Chambers, author of The Age Between: Personal Reflections on Youth Fiction, reflects on his relationship with printed books and the younger generation of ‘new book people’.

The Age Between Cover

Let me tell you about a meeting I had three years ago with two-hundred and fifty young people between the ages of eleven and eighteen. I was the guest speaker at the opening of the tenth annual Mare di Libri book festival for young readers, held at Rimini, a seaside town on the north-east coast of Italy. It’s an extraordinary, indeed inspiring event, organised almost entirely by a group of the young people themselves, based on the town’s children’s bookshop. They decide which authors they want to invite, look after them while they are there, organise the meetings, a bookshop, and other activities over a four-day period in June. Groups of young readers from many parts of Italy attend, along with interested adults.

At one point in my talk I said,

Look, I’m eighty-three. I’m probably the last of the traditional book people. And you are the first of the new book people. The readers who read books on iPads and mobile phones. For me, these are new, almost strange devices. You take them for granted. They’ve been around since you were born. They’re not a novelty, just part of your everyday life. A teacher recently told me the worst punishment for pupils’ misbehaviour is to take away their mobile phones and ban their use for more than a day.

Because of that, I’m wondering whether your experience of reading stories and novels or anything in fact is different from mine. And if it is different, how it’s different. So, let me tell you about my experience and then perhaps you will tell me about yours.

For a start, I do read digital books, on my iPad. But what I’ve discovered is that if a book really matters to me, matters so much I want to read it again, want to roam through the pages in any order, want to find particular passages again, and even mark words or sentences or paragraphs so that I can easily find them again, then I buy a traditional printed copy and read that instead of the one on my iPad.

There’s something else. I don’t find reading a book on my iPad as satisfying as reading a printed book. It’s as if the book on my iPad doesn’t exist. Whereas a printed book has an individual identity. I can hold it in my hands. It has a feeling and a smell. And when I’ve read it I can keep it on my bookshelves, and see it and take it down and look at it again whenever I want to. Easily, quickly, a pleasure in itself.

Books that I value become part of my life, part of myself, and I want them with me. They are companions. That is not true, for me anyway, about books on my iPad.

At this point the audience, who had so far been quiet and attentive, began to react. Some were nodding, some began muttering to their neighbours. One called out ‘I do that!’

I was so surprised that I stopped and said, ‘Are any of you like me? Do any of you start reading an eBook and then decide you want it as a printed book?’ There were cries of ‘Si! Si!’

‘Okay,’ I said. ‘Do something for me. Please hold up a hand if you prefer reading a book that matters to you as a printed book rather than as an eBook.’

Almost everyone in the room held up a hand.

‘And if you start reading on screen, how many of you then buy the printed book?’

The same crowd of hands went up.

We spent the rest of the time talking about the differences. We agreed that when you want information quickly, and in brief, online reading is best. We agreed that young people nowadays write and read vast amounts, because they are always busy sending messages on their mobile phones and finding out what they want to know by using search engines. But we also agreed that if you want to read carefully, with lengthy concentration, if you want to think about what you’re reading while you’re reading it, if you want to imagine what you’re reading, when it’s a story, and feel as well as think, and if you want to read something that is long, then the printed book is far better than an eBook or any other digital form.

This was face-to-face living evidence of all I’d read in Maryanne Wolf’s Tales of Literacy for the 21st Century, and Reader, Come Home, which make clear for those of us who are not specialists in neuroscience just how different the experience is of reading a text in a traditional book, and digitally, and why. At its heart, it’s the difference between what Wolf has called ‘deep reading’, and superficial, quick reading. What was inspiring was the conscious distinctions those young readers were making about reading as a valued, necessary activity. And as well as that, their passionate love of reading fiction, poetry, and other forms of narrative writing.

I was with them for four days. Time and again they came up to me in ones and twos to talk about what we’d said in that opening session, and what they thought of the books they were reading, and of mine. I watched them in the bookshop, where ten of the older organisers acted as sales assistants, introducing other young people and adults too to books they thought especially worthwhile.

It made this dinosaur feel that he was not at an end of a culture but part of its evolutionary developments. They were particularly interested in the novels and books published ‘for’ them – the books I call youth fiction, which in my estimation are not merely ‘for’ them but belong to a literature with its own poetics, its own special qualities and identifying features. This is the fiction I write about in The Age Between, in which I try to set out my own experience of writing novels of this kind, and my reading of books which are examples of the literature.

Aidan Chambers

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