Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 16 November 2018

An e-book's practicality doesn't trump sentimentality of the real thing

While I see the practicality of e-books and it seems inevitable to me that their popularity and prevalence will only increase, I feel a home is not complete without a bookshelf.

At the end of the presentation, my professor declared: "Everyone write their comments down on a piece of paper and pass it back."

I looked around as all but a handful of students looked helpless, peering from behind their computer screens and propped-up iPads as they realised that they had no "piece of paper" with them.

My school-supply checklist has changed dramatically since my undergraduate and high school days. Whereas I used to always make sure to have a notebook for every class, now all I need is a separate "tab" for all my classes on my virtual note-taking programme. Despite this adjustment, I'm still a purist when it comes to my reading habits. To properly enjoy a book I need to be holding it. The anticipation of finding out what is going to happen by physically turning the pages is an intimate experience that you just do not get holding a tablet. I prefer printing out an article for class to reading it online. But I do see the convenience and efficiency that comes with the new world of e-books.

Required to buy an average of five to seven books for every one of my classes, I gave in this semester and bought a few on my Kindle. I found this more practical than cluttering up my pint-sized apartment with books I might not necessarily read again. I like to save my limited bookshelf space for favourites such as Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, Kerouac's On the Road, JM Barrie's Peter Pan, Pratchett's Discworld series, Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, some Calvin and Hobbes and others. More importantly, when I travel it is nice to to carry thousands of books on a tiny tablet instead of having to make critical decisions about how many will fit into my luggage and whether I want to reread Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban or need another pair of shoes for my trip.

While I see the practicality of e-books and it seems inevitable to me that their popularity and prevalence will only increase, I feel a home is not complete without a bookshelf. The same way you can tell a lot about people from their favourite music or favourite films, there is nothing I love to do more than examine someone's book collection to see what he or she enjoys reading.

The change that most bothers me about embracing this new technology is the disappearance of bookshops. This applies not only to independent stores but also even to big chain stores, which have disappeared from New York. I remember spending many lazy Sunday afternoons with my sister browsing the aisles of Borders, picking up random books that caught our attention and consequently spending hours in the back reading. We went to every single "Harry Potter Midnight Magic" release party. We'd go for book signings and to hear authors do readings from their work. Those are just things you do not get from buying a book on Amazon.

There once was a time where paperbacks were considered to be the downfall of books, lacking the authority of a sturdy hardcover. But they quickly became an industry standard. In the same way, e-books will never be able to replace a print book, even as they rise in popularity.

Still, I think that as long as a book gets people to read, and as long as they are able to enjoy the experience, whether it is done with an actual copy they've flipped through so many times the cover is worn, or by swiping a finger across an iPad, or on the eye-friendly screen of an e-reader, it doesn't matter. I, for one, am excited to see what's next in store for books, and I'll do it with a Gabriel Garcia Márquez book on hand.

Fatima Al Shamsi is an Emirati studying for her master's in global affairs at NYU in New York