One of the more famous scenes in literature comes to us from Marcel Proust’s novel In Search of Lost Time (À la recherche du temps perdu in the original French). The narrator, never named, eats a madeleine dipped in tea that is so evocative as to fill 3,000 pages with recollections. (The madeleine is a small sponge cake with a flavor compounded of almond, vanilla and lemon, traditional to northeastern France.)
If I have ever eaten a madeleine it certainly left no such sensory imprint on me. However what can send me on a reverie akin to the experience of Proust’s narrator is the smell of a book.
I am partial to the musty smell of old libraries and old books. Their look, smell and grainy touch can spark my imagination without me even opening them. The odor is strongest at the bound base of its pages, which I sometimes spread to indulge a deep nasal inhalation. Those smells recall countless childhood hours when I found escape, adventure and pleasure in the worlds the authors had conjured. I also have keen memories of the smell of new textbooks we were handed at the beginning of each school year in the early grades. That fresh ink and paper smell hinted at new discoveries that awaited.
I don’t think of myself as Luddite-prone though when it comes to high-tech no one would accuse me of being an early adopter either. I confess to some nervousness over the last decade or so as I observed more and more people doing their reading on Kindles and the like. Were my beloved books, with their physicality, weight, and yes their smell of ink, paper, glue and time, headed the way of horse and buggy or the VCR and cassette tape?
So it has been with some relief and even delight that I’ve greeted reports during this past year of e-book sales declining for the first time, and good old ink-on-paper books gaining marketshare against them. Perhaps printed books are not on a relentless descent to extinction. Gutenberg need not turn over in his grave just yet.
Digital books had been around for decades but they did not take off until 2008, shortly after Amazon’s Kindle and other e-reader devices, such as the iPad and Barnes & Noble’s Nook, were released. Early growth rates were in the double and triple digits. Those rates later tailed off as some consumers moved their reading to smartphones and tablets. In 2014 some 12 million dedicated e-readers were sold, compared to nearly 20 million sold in 2011. The portion of people who read books primarily on e-readers fell to 32% last year, down from 50% in 2012.
Recently all e-book sales have been declining, regardless of what they are read on. A similar trend is occurring on the other side of the Atlantic. The Guardian has reported that e-book sales in the U.K. fell 1.6% in 2015 while sales of printed books grew by 0.4%.
A factor behind the decline in e-books sales could be that many publishers, after renegotiating new deals with Amazon, raised their prices, in some cases to levels even higher than for a print version. Public libraries may be siphoning off e-book buyers by adopting newer technology that makes it easier for library members to download e-books 24 hours a day. Another factor could be that the sales data is incomplete; it applies just for sales by traditional publishers. Millions of readers have migrated to cheap and plentiful self-published e-books, which often cost less than a dollar and don’t show up in book industry sales data.
A macro factor may also be operating. “Digital fatigue” is the name given it by Peter Hildick-Smith, president of the Codex Group, which recently surveyed book buyers’ shopping preferences. Codex found that though book buyers stated they spend almost five hours of daily personal time on screens, 25% of book buyers, including 37% of those 18-24 years old, want to spend less time on their digital devices. Since consumers almost always have the option to read books in physical formats (unlike music or video products) they are returning to print. Codex found that the 18-to-24-year-old group is now reading fewer e-books than they used to, and they show the highest percentage of decline among all age groups. Fifty-nine percent of those who said they are reading fewer e-books cited a preference for print as the main reason for switching back to physical books. A preference for physical books was highest for the heaviest screen users. Young people rejecting e-books is certainly not good news for the future of that medium.
As go books sales, so go independent book retailers. In 2015 the American Booksellers Association counted 1,712 member stores in 2,227 locations, up from 1.410 stores in 1,660 locations five years earlier.
Not everyone is convinced printed books will rule as the dominant reading medium. Andrew Nusca in a post last year for Fortune magazine argued that the current resurgence of print books is only a blip and that digital books will ultimately prevail over their printed forebears.
I’ll go with the theory that e-books have had their day in the sun and now printed books are back on top. Who knows, perhaps those young readers now rediscovering printed books may even come to read In Search of Lost Time and as they do so spark a fondness for the smell of ink, paper and glue as evocative as Proust’s narrator enjoyed for his madeleines.
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