As students, we are used to the sight of books, but few of us will have considered the incredible fact that since the invention of writing thousands of years ago, reading stories has never gone out of fashion. Not once. The same cannot be said for the overwhelming majority of man’s other forms of entertainment, many of which are enjoyed for the most fleeting of moments before being dumped onto the scrapheap of old and unwanted hobbies, right next to a whole host of discarded modern gadgets, antiquated styles of music and irrelevant sports. Anyone up for a good joust?
However, novels persistently avoid this fate, and reading them remain one of the world’s most cherished and popular pursuits. But in an increasingly hectic modern world, in which many of us can scarcely find the time to read the television guide, let alone a chapter in a book, how has this ancient form of entertainment been able to fend off wave after wave of technological competitors with such ease?
The first thing to realise is that novels offer a completely different style of entertainment to that which is offered by television, films and games. These latter activities provide an impersonal and passive experience, in which the participant is a mere spectator, and has very little influence on what they experience. Novels, on the other hand, offer characters and worlds that can be shaped and refined by the reader’s imagination. No two people will experience a work of fiction in the same way, and that probably explains why finishing a good book is often accompanied by such a feeling of accomplishment, as we feel that we have in some way contributed to the story, and helped to mould it into such an engaging experience. This is also why watching a TV-adaptation of a favourite novel can sometimes turn out to be a rather underwhelming, or even distressing experience: we find ourselves watching someone else’s interpretation of the book’s characters, locations and events, which very often contrast starkly with our own mental renditions.
The novel is also amongst the most flexible creative media available. Its content can take virtually any shape and please any audience. Due to its complete lack of boundaries, just about anyone can find a novel that interests them, be it a spy thriller, a murder mystery or even a perplexing sub-par romance involving glistening vampires. If you can imagine it, someone will have written about it.
But the novel’s flexibility goes beyond just its content: its physical form can also be adapted to fit any situation. These can vary from pocket-sized books for the busy commuter to the modern e-reader or the Kindle, a device no bigger than a standard paperback, but capable of storing thousands of different books. Such innovations are not a modern phenomenon either, and are not, as some pessimists claim, evidence of an archaic pastime desperately struggling to remain relevant in a changing world. The form which books take has constantly been updated throughout history, progressing from the papyrus scroll to the monastic manuscript and finally, with the invention of the printing press in 1440, the printed book as we know it.
This also serves to demonstrate how, contrary to popular belief, the digital age and the new technologies that it brings do not spell doom for the novel. Like a regenerating Time Lord, it is merely beginning its next stage of existence and, if anything, could be entering into a new golden age, with recent statistics all showing an explosion in e-book and audio-book sales. New services such as Amazon’s allows users to browse millions of books online and download them with the click of a button. After flicking through thousands of reader-reviews you may still opt for the 15th-century option over an e-book and buy the paper copy, except that now you can have it delivered to your hands the very next day.
There’s never been a better time to be a reader.