A number of press reports this week have set me thinking about just how much faith we can ever put in statistics. Two days ago there was an article in my morning paper claiming that for the first time the sales of e-books had surpassed that of paper formats. And yet, over the weekend, that same journal had published the results of a survey that suggested that more than fifty percent of children under the age of eighteen vastly preferred what we might call a hard copy of a book to its digital equivalent. The reasons given were, I thought, telling. Reflecting the age in which we live, the fact that, whether legal or not, music and films in their digital formats having once been bought can then be passed on to friends while books cannot, was high on the list of motives for preferring ‘the real thing’. Wanting to share a story well told and thoroughly enjoyed is, thank goodness, still an important attribute of being a reader. However, other reasons given included such goodies as enjoying the smell of a new book, having the ‘trophy’ of a full book shelf and being able to see the creases in the spine of a book when it has been read.
This came back into my mind today because two of my seven godchildren are each celebrating their birthday. It won’t come as a surprise to any of you that all my godchildren (and all my other friends, for that matter) know better than to expect anything other than reading related birthday presents when they open my gifts. I do, however, have the good grace to enquire what kind of book related product they would prefer and these two differ. The elder of the two, now in her middle thirties and living in France always wants a book. If I should happen to buy her something she has already read then that is a problem she is prepared to live with but as she infrequently buys books for herself and doesn’t have a particularly good library service nearby, this rarely happens. This year I’ve sent her a copy of The Goldfinch. I normally send her something from the Orange/Woman’s/Baileys’ short list. Last year it was Life After Life and the year before Instructions for a Heatwave. In fact the three eldest (all in their middle thirties) and the two youngest (still in primary school) all want books. They like the thrill of tearing open the parcel and discovering what is inside. The ten and eleven year olds may change as they grow older but at the moment they want the book itself.
The middle two, a brother and sister who are in their early twenties and both still at university, prefer tokens. That, however, is as far as the similarity goes. The lass, (twenty-one today!) wants ‘a proper book token’. She must be one of the few people in her age group who doesn’t own any form of e-reader by choice. It won’t surprise you to know that she is studying sustainability and has already spent a year working in a small South American village a sixteen hour journey by boat from the nearest working telephone.
Her brother, on the other hand, who chose to spend his gap year in Tokyo, is as IT savvy as they come. For him it has to be tokens that he can use for digital purposes and in fact he was the one who first pointed out to me (almost diplomatically) that such things were available.
As far as my own preferences go I’m with the middle two. I much prefer tokens that I can go and spend on something I’ve been desperate to read but haven’t been able either to afford or to persuade the local library service to buy. What I find really interesting, however, in the light of the two surveys I mentioned at the beginning of this post, is that even if we discount the two youngest who are still at the stage when a token of any sort would definitely not cut the mustard, four out of five of these readers, who have all very much grown up with the digital age, still prefer real books in one form or another. I don’t know about you, but even though I own and use an e-reader when it is convenient, I find that very encouraging.