Summer Reading in the Time of Screens and Cyberspace: of Netflix and Other Demons

To say that I am an enthusiastic reader would be a gross understatement. I read a lot, across genres, and even though my average yearly reading is not a record-breaking figure, I like to believe that my proclivity to obsess over the books I love more than compensates for it. Summer vacations have always spelt a lot of things for the lot of us: beaches (or, if you’re like me, mountains and valleys), mocktails, ice creams, flip flops, denim jackets, and summer dresses. For me, the picture will stay incomplete without a book and a quirky bookmark in it. However, it seems that even the kids who would normally loathe reading books during the school year seek breezy refuge within the pages of a dusty classic, or a bestseller hardcover, or revisit their childhood favourites in collector’s edition. My only explanation is that the sunshine works its magic in bizarre ways.

Chronicle of a death (not) foretold

As I lie in my bed at 2 AM writing this, I have no plans of reading a book once I am done. Maybe I’ll check out my Netflix (or Prime) account. The likelihood of latter is…well, definite. If I am not ready for a longer commitment, I’ll just find a movie or a documentary and conclude the day with the closing of a couple of tabs. On days when New Girl is streaming, I don’t mind waking through the night to binge-watch an entire season (or series, don’t judge).

I can hear 15-year-old me, yelling and sighing at my oscillating loyalties, ‘whatever happened to books are my best friends?’ But I can barely help it. The 15-year-old will have to understand. After a long day of academic reading, researching through reams of books, and a physically/mentally demanding job, I can hardly hold a glass in my hand, so a 300-page paperback will certainly not make the cut.

So, are my choices any different when it comes to summer reading, the quintessential image of which is a sunglasses-adorned reader on the beach-side, tipsy on frozen cocktails?

The story of a shipwrecked reader

The image of your summer-reading personality may not fit the archetype, but you certainly have a to-be-read (TBR for short) list of books, most of which you try to strike off during this time. Reading on a holiday, whether while travelling in the train, or snuggling with a book on a plane (often bought from the airport bookstore), or in hygge cafes with a cupcake and latte by your side, or in the picturesque vicinity of your destination- has always been and will always be a sacred ritual. Finding second hand or vintage bookshops would be the cherry on the proverbial cake (or even the actual cupcake in that cozy café).

It wouldn’t be wrong to say that sunshine still works wonders, and for those couple of months, we are all the 15-year-old again, engrossed between the pages of a book, or the artificial bookmark in the Kindle.

The reader in the labyrinth

And this shift to kindle, albeit practical, is what is endangering the very act of reading.

When Naomi Baron talks about our growing obsession with screens and devices, it hints at technological determinism. Readers are more likely to multitask when reading on screen than in print, and the incentive for indulging in other activities like shopping, surfing social media, etc., is even higher during holidays. After all, in this age, so many travel for the ‘gram! Well, screens certainly are ubiquitous and we did take the plunge from handwritten to word-processed, but the reading experience is not platform-agnostic. Baron’s study makes a telling revelation: if cost is removed from the equation, digital millennials commonly prefer print.

If you don’t mind a slight digression here, some food for thought lies in the fact that devouring a novel for several hours can arguably be just as sedentary and addictive but isn’t called binging the way a movie marathon of unfettered consumption of TV shows is. Where do the audiobooks stand? That warrants another rant altogether.

No one writes to the author

Not anymore. Instead, they tweet. And the authors respond, too. Fan mail has been replaced by fans swooning over the authors/characters/quotes on social media. What does this mean for the future of reading? This is just an example of how things in the literary world are changing, how the digital demons are invading sacred spaces, and how this still doesn’t mean that the act of leisurely reading is a thing of the past. Here’s why.

Living to tell the tale: #bookstagram

Of the many changes brought by social media, one has been a blessing in disguise for the world of readers: #bookstagram. The book blogger and reader community on Instagram has rekindled our love for cozy reading nooks, scented candles and a quaint reading scenery. The easier it gets to go down the rabbit-hole of binge-watching, the more readers take to reading as an escape. The ritual of summer reading has survived, and perhaps even thrived amid the influx of video on-demand. Things are looking up: more people want to use the holidays to disconnect, to be in the moment and just catch up- on breaths, on friendships, and on pending reading lists.

Memories of my melancholy chores

And yet, as much as I’d like to believe in the irreplaceability of books in their physical flesh, I am painfully aware that this question is being asked for a reason: in the shift from papyrus to cyberspace, things have changed. Yes, attention spans are shorter, Netflix is vying for our attention (and it is a strong player, too); but neither has this been deterministic nor irrevocable.

A special thanks is also due to the wild popularity of all things Pinterest-y, to Jenny Han for writing books that make for perfect summer reads (and whose titles inadvertently pass the test for search-engine optimisation) and bookstagrammers who kept the glamour of summer reading alive.

[A note from the author: panicking at the prospect of losing touch with the good ol’ summer reading, the literary enthusiast in me took charge and created an ode to Marquez by letting his expressions headline my rumination of the times.]

[Kritika Narula]

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