Edinburgh International Book Festival: Why the book will never die even in the Internet Age – Alastair Stewart

As Edinburgh International Book Festival draws to a close, one question has been lingering on the lips of many bibliophiles: “Do I have any more room for even more books?"

The book has not died despite the rise of ebooks and never will (Picture: Clemens Bilan/Getty Images for Bread & Butter by Zalando)
The book has not died despite the rise of ebooks and never will (Picture: Clemens Bilan/Getty Images for Bread & Butter by Zalando)

I've moved country twice and flats four or five times in the last 15 years. On each occasion, the headache and the ‘deep sigh’ moment was when it was time to move ‘the books’.

Once I was storing a modest library at the family home when I was abroad. I was asked if I had "actually" read these hundreds of books. I was half serious when I said, "define read"?

This was not as sarcastic as it sounded. Have you only read a book if you've sat and gone from cover to cover? If that's the case, no one I know read a thing at university. Most people thumb, flick, underline and dog-ear pages and revisit chapters.

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University started a habit of finding second-hand books at such an obscenely reduced cost that you end up paying more for the delivery. Looking for books and sniffing out a rarity and bargain deals in used book shops and charities across the country is a sport.

Our age is so astronomically fleeting that few have the patience to read an academic text from cover to cover. It is almost a lost art to skim, digest, and draw thematic conclusions.

I taught students who made impassioned pleas that accidental cheating is seriously hazardous in literature and social science. The internet and social media are so rife with opinions about opinions that some duplication is inevitable – striking on an original idea is monstrously hard.

Knowledge is everywhere, especially when you have Google searches in your corner. It is easier to read regurgitated summaries about, say, Herman Melville's Moby Dick, than to sit down and read 500 pages on whale song.

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Many times, some awful table talk has turned to a subject I have had no idea about, so I quickly read up on it during a restroom break. Usually, it's sports, chemistry, or some specific public policy item. God bless Wikipedia.

This generation is full of professional amateurs – we know a little about everything and not much expertly. That can only be a good thing, but not at the expense of reading as an activity and learning as a process.

Digital copies of most books can be found across various platforms. They make it easier to search for information, highlight, recall, and even copy text into articles and essays. It might take you a lifetime to get through every classic, science text, or pop culture fad – now, you can read someone else's conclusions and sell it as a considered opinion.

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Environmentalists will tell you ebooks are greener. Book lovers will tell you they're more practical to read by the poolside – no more soggy pages on those summer days. Travellers will make the case their tablets light up on those midnight planes, trains and automobiles.

I worked at Waterstones as a student job between 2007 and 2012. That little epoch was full of doom and gloom, financial crises and a recession. The company was seriously worried about the death of paper books. Waterstones’ e-readers were given precedence in shops; we were told to push them wherever possible as the future of reading and personal convenience.

Only, it wasn't. No one ever stopped loving books. No one stopped judging books by their cover, and no one in their right mind traded a lifetime of hard copies for a virtual library. It would be like asking someone to ditch their LP records because they have a Spotify account.

Whether fiction or non-fiction, prose or poetry, the book has not died, and never will. The internet is a fabulous, brilliant resource, but it is one big version of SparkNotes. Algorithms and recommended articles on Wikipedia cannot take away from the delight of reading as an activity, not an endpoint.

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A wonderful Japanese word is ‘tsundoku’, which means acquiring reading materials but letting them pile up in one's home without reading them – all hail bibliomania.

My Grandmother, Eleanor, gave me a love of reading from a young age. No book was ever too advanced, too simple or a waste of time and money. She practised what Winston Churchill said of books: “Let them be your friends; let them at any rate be your acquaintances. If they cannot enter the circle of your life, do not deny them at least a nod of recognition.”

Surrounding yourselves with books, read, unread, thumbed or wrecked, enriches your lives. Covers can be bright or musty, but the aroma is always a gripping testament to old knowledge or fresh ideas. They remind you of what you know and are a gentle invitation to learn more.

Exposure to books boosts cognitive abilities by making reading a part of a lifelong routine. One study found that children who grew up in homes with between 80 and 350 books showed improved literacy, numeracy, and information communication technology skills as adults. They can create an inquiring mind and ignite an obsessive need to find the source of what knowledge is.

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Old National Trust houses always have an array of books in libraries which look cold and unloved. Very few people who surrounded themselves with books crammed under tables, spilling from cubbyholes or squeezed in between shelves would say it is for vanity.

Books are about intellectual humility, the joy of finding something you do not know by researching, reading, and learning. Here's to more piles of books and a neverending sea of surprises.

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