x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Are e-books opening a new chapter of global illiteracy?

The dawn of e-books brings an entire library of knowledge into the palm of your hand. Will you be bothered to read it?

Recently, I learnt that the word "laconic" means a style of speech or writing that uses very few words (my old mathematics teacher, apparently, was hyper-laconic). I also discovered that the word "demure" actually derives from the Latin maturus, which means mature.

My own mid-life explosion of vocabulary is, I admit, an unforeseen by-product of a recent conversion to e-books. Previously, I had always found reading on a screen a little like talking on the phone: a necessary, but inferior, substitute for the real thing. Like a face-to-face conversation, reading from a well-thumbed book has an ineffable organic quality that somehow enriches the experience. That's especially true of older books with their yellowing pages bearing the study-scars of former readers.

Occasionally, while reading one of my mother's old books, I will discover insightful notes jotted in a margin, or a whole paragraph underlined with my name written next to it. She probably hoped I'd one day read them. But despite my nostalgia for the printed page, I stand before you today an unashamed e-bibliophile.

My e-book experience began with the acquisition of an iPad. To my absolute delight, I discovered that while reading an e-book I can simply touch any word on the screen and get a full definition. For years I've skipped unfamiliar words that I stumbled across, usually promising myself to look up the elusive word later, but never doing so. Indolence often trumps curiosity.

But today's e-readers, with their integrated one-touch dictionaries, minimise the gap between linguistic curiosity and knowledge. It leaves little room for laziness. I predict a massive expansion of the commonly used lexicon as we slowly make the inevitable transition to e-reading. That said, it's just as likely we'll start to use spoken-text functions, essentially rendering e-books into audio books and giving rise to mass illiteracy.

Beyond one-touch integrated dictionary functions, e-books are also highly searchable in ways that radically improve research efficiency. I recently downloaded Freud's entire corpus and was able to search it all for every reference that the Austrian psychoanalyst ever made to fetishism - a task that would have been prohibitively time consuming in print. And it will get better; it's not hard to imagine a search feature going beyond user-defined terms, and intelligently incorporating synonymous phrases or themes.

Another great feature that parallels the printed page is the ability to make notes or highlight the text. With e-books there are no space constraints in the margins. You can write as little or as much as you like. One day, I can envisage my own offspring getting fresh insights into their baba by perusing the margins of my old e-book.

All of these features are great, but for me, trying to find an obscure book sealed the deal. I used the Kindle application on my iPad to locate a book in under two minutes. No hunting around in a bookstore or waiting two weeks for a delivery to arrive.

Sure, at present there are still a lot of texts that are not available as e-books, but that is changing. As with looking up words, the less effort required, the more likely the action. On my last trip to Amazon.com, I bought far more than I'd be able to carry home from a conventional bookstore.

The rise of the e-book and e-reader has huge implications for the publishing industry, in much the same way the digital revolution shook the foundations of the music business. Perhaps the iPad will be to books what the iPod was to music.

One offshoot is the independently published, best-selling novel. In the same way that software developers have taken to the iPhone and iPad, so too writers can make their work available through an e-book store. Several independent e-novels, some priced as low as 99 US cents (Dh3.60), have even broken six-figure sales.

As I browsed the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair earlier this month, I couldn't help but marvel at the vast ocean of ideas made manifest in ink. But I'm sure that such events will soon have to be radically different. Will paper give way to touch screen technology and will traditional publishing models be eroded? I hope not.

One thing is certain, change is coming. I'm already on the look out for a psychology e-textbook for my Psychology 101 course. I'm sure students will welcome the change - especially if it means saying goodbye to heavy textbooks.


Justin Thomas is an assistant professor of psychology at Zayed University