Can Electric Reading Save Literature?

Throughout the literary community there has much continuous discussion of the e-book phenomenon, particularly this year with the announcement of Harper Collins’s Impulse imprint and the huge percentage of adults who read YA via electronic devices. Topics on the table have included how the publishing industry will be impacted and how this could threaten the futures of libraries and physical bookstores.

Image courtesy of jasonpearce (flickr.com)

However, I have not seen much discussion (but if you have please send it my way) about how this accessibility is not only positive but an inevitable advancement for society in and out of the states.

Living in a foreign country, in this case Uruguay, I have noted a few things:

Books are Expensive

For example, Jorge Luis Borges’s collection of stories stories, “Ficciones” goes for about 1000 pesos, which is roughly 50 dollars. If you want a book in English, depending on its popularity, it starts from about 400-500 pesos, roughly 20-25 dollars. This does not sound like much but when the average income is 10,000 pesos books become a special, sparse perk.

You may ask: How about used bookstores/indies? They exist as well but the average book starts at 100 pesos, 5 dollars. I am used to going to library sales and buying 10 books for the same price. I just cannot bring myself to buy any.

Physical Limitations

If you don’t have money to buy books the next best place is a library – a physical, vanilla infused space oozing with whispers of knowledge and discovery. However, if you live in an area where this infrastructure is either neglected or non-existent, this further limits your ability to find recent literature or to bone up on the classics.

In Uruguay, for example the Biblioteca Nacional (The National Library) does not allow you to check out books. You enter this spacious room filled with rows of card catalogs. Yes, those wonderful, wooden drawers that slide out and overwhelm you with their yellowing, typewriter inscribed contents. As someone who grew up using them and misses their bulky existence, I couldn’t resist smiling.

Once you find what you desire, you fill out a form, past it to the librarian, and she hands you the book. It is very sterile. There is no roaming aimlessly in La Biblioteca Nacional. You just stand and wait. It kind of takes out the experience of a library.

There are other public library branches throughout Montevideo that allow you to check out books but they are not in every town. The one where I live has been closed for three years and just now they are rebuilding it. Older members of the community (jubilados y pensionistas) created a one-room library in town that is open for a few hours, thrice a week.

I visited once the largest private library in Uruguay after it was closed for the entire summer. I walked by it every day, waiting for the doors to open. It baffled me that at a time when children and young adults are out of school, such an important, social facility could be closed. I came to learn that the library is entirely run by volunteers and due to robberies can only be open two days a week for a few hours. It broke my heart.

The availability is present but not constant and only to those who actively search for it. Unwavering motivation is key. In the U.S. you can Google search your local library, take a bill, identification, and you’re set. Curiosity is enough.

The Young

As someone who loves teens, I see YA books in bookstores but not much in libraries because YA is newer than Shakespeare – and let me tell you, Shakespeare in Spanish is a trip. Libraries don’t have the funds to buy YA novels and the demand is not there because being a bibliophile is for older people. I always see older people reading. I rarely see someone my age or younger – they exist but not in great amounts. This is because they are all plugged in.

E-books disguise themselves as the internet. They are easily accessible and most of the time they are free (Project Gutenberg; Bartleby) or at a very reduced price. In Uruguay for example there is a program called Plan Ceibal which gives free laptop computers to public school students and there are various Wi-Fi hotspots in important, populated parts of the country. E-books are probably the only way children will be introduced to the wonders of literature without the impediments of money and location standing in the way.

This has been my personal case. I can’t afford to buy books and I can’t go to libraries very often, so the majority of my 2012 reading was done on the computer I am typing this on now. I am now an electronic reader.

E-books will fill the gaps in the world where accessibility to physical books is not prominent. It should not be seen as the death of literature, but as a rebirth that will benefit all and introduce new, young readers to YA and so much more.  Hopefully, the affordability of electronic devices will become more manageable with the advent of more programs such as Ceibal.

But, this does not mean that the importance of physical, personal contact with books should be discarded and neglected. Rather, I hope we can all cherish it and contemplate it’s significance.

A screen cannot replace the experience of stumbling across a book while quietly walking between shelves, but it can share with everyone, without limitation, why this experience is essential and necessary.

Lourdes Keochgerien, YA Consultant & ReaderDFTBA

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