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You don't just read books, do you?

Now that I’ve read it, the question does seem to mislead. I do not intend to question the very primal purpose of a book but rather reminisce the supplementary joys that a book lends when read in its printed rendition over the digitized one.

Don’t get me wrong! Most of the books that I’ve read these past months were the highly subsidized and digitized versions of their paperback and hardcover counterparts, all consolidated neatly into a palm-sized device called the Kindle.

Technically, palm-sized is not a common standard used to measure the dimensions of electronic devices, but it makes for good reading!

And though I have grown to appreciate the benefits of reading digital copies of the fictional novels that I love, I am equally in awe of the multitude of functions that a physical book can provide, if one only knew what those were! This little write-up is to remind ourselves of some of those functions, and hence without further ado, let us dive in!

My most beloved aspect of owning a book used to be the process of buying it. On good days, this process included a day-long trip to the nearest Crossword, ruffling through a few books and more, comparing different publisher editions and finally making the tumultuous decision of selecting the lucky few! On the less fortunate days, I’d buy ‘pirated’ books from one of the roadside vendors near my college with only one goal in mind – how do I optimize my allowance by collecting as many thrillers as I could under five hundred rupees?

Okay, I get it! Piracy is bad, but we are talking of a period when my tiny brain had to decide between splurging on the daily Tibbs Frankie or playing an extended bout of Counter-Strike or owning the latest revenge caper by Jeffrey Archer. Frankly, this was MY Sophie’s Choice!

But irrespective of the legality of the said purchases, there were a few common elements that defined the experience of buying a book. As a start, I had to manually explore multiple books before deciding the ones that made the cut. Contrast this with the current way of finding books on a Kindle or anywhere online, and you’ll see that recommendation engines and fancy algorithms have only sucked the joy out of ‘choosing’ a book. I finished reading The Handmaid’s Tale and boom came the recommendation for The Testaments! I put down Only Time Will Tell after an overnight read and bam came the prompt for the Cliffton Chronicles. It IS convenient… but EQUALLY unexciting.

Btw, side note: All those books are worth a read!

Another integral part of buying a new book was the social aspect surrounding it. I’d go book-hunting with a couple of friends, we’d share on-the-go reviews of familiar books, exchange ideas for a better way to end King’s newest thriller!

Full disclaimer: We were under the false impression that A. Our limited minds could conjure better finales than Mr Stephen King himself and B. Someone gave a squat about our opinions!

And of course, eventually, we’d compare the stack of books that our individual five hundred rupee notes bought us after a couple of hours of deliberation and incessant bargaining with the local pirate!

Now, while there are websites such as Goodreads that let you connect with fellow readers, explore new titles, follow reviews and discussions, it doesn’t FEEL as personal. It feels exactly like what it is – a socially decorated facade for Amazon to recommend the e-books that they want to sell.

The second unique aspect of owning a physical book is the duality of it being a personal possession as well as a transferrable experience. For instance, let’s say some friends visit your house. While looking around, they happen to spot a very intriguing looking edition of Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone. It is absolutely okay for them to pull it out, read a few pages and put it back where they found it. No ‘privacy’ infringed!

But what if you had that book in a Kindle? Firstly, your friends would have no clue about the so-called ‘special edition’ book, because there is nothing customizable about the physical appearance of a Kindle! Secondly, even if you did tell them, accessing someone else’s device feels a lot more invasive than reading a book off the shelf. You’re uncomfortable, they’re uncomfortable, and god forbid, the Kindle is uncomfortable!

And this brings me to the third important aspect of owning physical books – expression. Every book on a Kindle is the same – black and white covers, the same old plastic back, your standard choice of font, and your range of brightness setting. But a physical book can be so much more!

You’ve got paperbacks, hardcovers, deluxe editions, anniversary editions, and collectors editions. Covers that change according to demographics, region, language, publications, and print editions. Fonts that are unique, typeface that is custom, and bezels that are non-standard. More than anything else, the sheer quality of the paper can distinguish itself at the first touch and the first smell. Isn’t that reason enough to own at least one physical book?

There are several other reasons why print books should never go out of style, but none are as critical for me as the ones that I mentioned above. However, for the sake of an exhaustive argument, let us look at some other use cases for the ‘book’ book.

Books can be decorative elements for the house, coffee-table centrepieces for the living room, or even a short read for the occasional lengthy washroom trip. They can serve as a great conversation starter in a cafe or an interesting line of discussion in an interview. For some folks, reading is almost like a sensory experience that cannot be paralleled by a device. People not only read a book, but they touch the embossed covers, they smell the papery aroma and they listen to the rustling pages. In the crudest form of usage, books can be a reliable paperweight, ideal dumbbell replacements in a pinch, and effective means of ventilation in the event of a power outage! But more importantly, books can be the one thing that will exist even when an electromagnetic pulse takes out your entire city block towards the end of this horrendous year!

Pardon me, but I lost myself in the emotional flow there! But wait, there are too many jokes… must make fun…

I think the world NEEDS the coffee-table book about coffee-tables. That’s one thing that Kramer got right, of course except for the perfume that smells like the beach! Wouldn’t it be cool to start interviews by placing three covers of the same book in front of a candidate and asking them their preference? P.S. That’s exactly how matchmaking is done in India even today! Why do we end up using books as a temporary paperweight? Aren’t books nothing but a collection of papers to begin with? All jokes aside, an EMP would be the best way to end 2020. It’ll be like a digital big bang for the formation of a universe that is slightly more manageable, and a lot less orange.

Phew, got it all out of the system! Let’s draw this to a close now.

The fight between physical vs digital isn’t dying anytime soon, so I’d like to end with a simple notion. A notion that I’d probably prefer a Kindle or similar device to read 95% of all the books that I CAN. But the remaining 5% as printed books is non-negotiable, simply because a Kindle can ONLY rekindle the love for reading, and NOT recreate the magic of it…

And with that, I’ll get back to the Cormoran Strike novel on my Kindle, cause I’ve already got my other 5% on the shelf.

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