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Me, My Shelf And I

The essence of the reading experience remains the same whether the words are on the screen or the page…

ILLUSTRATIONS BY HARJYOT KHALSA​

As a kid, when we would go on summer vacation, my one grouse was not being able to read on the train at night-time. When I was about 12, I finally decided to bring a torch with me, but even that hardly helped. For someone like me who loved to read, especially during the freedom of my time away from school and classes, it was pure torture when the lights would go off — at the same time — in almost every long-distance train compartment, like some sort of mandate. If only I could have given my pre-teen self a Kindle Paperwhite!

I remember when the Amazon Kindle was officially launched in India in 2012 and how some people had already gotten their hands on it before then, because they had ‘friends in the US’. The same goes for devices from other companies, such as the Nook and Kobo, which never really took off in India because Amazon had the first-mover advantage. I was initially overjoyed when I heard about the Kindle. An actual reading device! It was like all of my dreams were coming true — more than 1,000 books in one place. But, somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew that I could never fully adjust to something like that. I mean, for all practical purposes, it’s still a device, right? What about the charm of good old reading? Wouldn’t more people prefer an actual book? These questions drove me to think about platforms of reading, about physical versus digital and the various other dilemmas that this kind of innovation brings up.

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I will admit to owning a Kindle myself, and I have pulled it out when conversations at the dinner table have gotten boring, and there was nothing else to do. At times like these I usually go through a few quick reads — like short stories by Tagore and Alice Munro, or Margaret Atwood’s mini-fiction tales, which won’t take too much time.

“For me reading is a very immersive activity and is best experienced when I am holding the physical copy of a book. I just cannot bring myself to read on a Kindle. I guess it is also about the fact that when we were growing up, there wasn’t anything like it. I am trying to adapt, but I doubt I will ever make the transition.”
-Divya Tejuja, Co-founder, Bazinga Entertainment

I have vivid memories of the cassette tapes of nursery rhymes by Preeti Sagar. They were our very own version of audiobooks — perhaps even the beginning of it in some way. Remember the Karadi tales narrated by Naseeruddin Shah? Long drives with the family to Khandala or Lonavala meant listening to those tapes on a loop, whether my folks liked it or not.

Today, when I look at apps such as Storytel or Audible, I am in awe of the way that storytelling techniques have developed. The key to this medium’s success is the ‘who’ – the narrator; their voice pattern, inflection, intonation and, most importantly, ability to keep the listener hooked.

Today most people prefer audiobooks when they are at the gym (I wonder how that works out for them? I mean, here I am sweating and panting and listening to erotica…but maybe that’s a good combination after all) or driving (I could never do that, my attention would always be on the road) or doing something unimportant while the book drones on in the background.

However, like the Kindle, Storytel has also come to my rescue in times of dire need. I recall listening to Stephen Fry uproariously narrating his book Mythos when I was at a wedding and bored out of my wits. I mean, who wouldn’t be, when every five minutes, some aunty or uncle is questioning you about getting married. Better to read and feign ignorance, than to confront. Thank you, Mr Fry, and thank you, Storytel!

“I was always under the impression that audiobooks weren’t for me until they became my jam, and now I almost can’t do without them. A lot depends on who the narrator is, but my experience has mostly been great. I recommend them to anyone who wants to read more but doesn’t have enough time.”
-Sharin Bhatti, Co-founder, Books on Toast

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Formats have changed considerably, given how reading habits and patterns have also been evolving. From tomes that have no end and serialised novels to stories written in just 280 characters, the landscape of book content has seen some interesting changes. For instance, in 2014, the well-known mythologist and writer Devdutt Pattanaik narrated the entire Mahabharata in just 36 tweets.

So, it isn’t a surprise then that reading platforms have incorporated it all. For instance, the Juggernaut app offers readers ‘snackable’ stories (all the content is around 10 pages long) at no cost, and the ones that aren’t free are minimally priced. Juggernaut’s mobility works in its favour; while some folks still struggle to read on their phones, this app has made it easier, and people who want something to read on-the-go can make a start with short stories and novellas.

“When we started the reading app at Juggernaut, we knew it wasn’t going to be easy. There was a lot of scepticism, but now people are downloading and reading on it. They are mostly coming for short reads, and the downloads seem to be much higher than what we roughly know to be Kindle’s average, which is about 60 downloads per title. And, the subscription model is creating greater experimentation, downloading, and snacking.”
-Chiki Sarkar, Founder, Juggernaut Books

New-age readers also pay attention to book podcasts, BookTubers’ recommendations, bookstagram accounts and, what I am a part of, Book Twitter. A lot of author-and-publisher interactions take place on social media, which help readers in picking their next books. In fact, publishers are currently utilising these platforms to release excerpts so that readers can get a sense of a book before it goes on sale. For me, that is highly innovative and engaging.

While people might have the option to read and create stories on different and perhaps even counter-intuitive mediums — some that work and some that do not — what matters most is that we are reading again. We live hectic lives. We live lives where sometimes we forget that we have interests and hobbies outside of Twitter outrage or Instagram-caused FOMO, and if new platforms can help to deflect our attention from these superficial distractions, then bring it on.

At the same time, you have even shorter stories coming out through Terribly Tiny Tales. This online venture of Anuj Gosalia has its roots in crowdsourced content. Anyone, and I mean anyone, can write byte-sized stories and submit them via Facebook or Twitter and get published online. One of the major shifts in the book industry is the fact that those who were once only consumers of content are now also the creators. Shorter formats have become increasingly popular because of our reduced attention spans, and endeavours like Terribly Tiny Tales provide people who are on the move or even at work with reading material they can finish quickly with enough time left to ponder over it, not to mention the instant validation of having completed something.

The idea of short or bite-sized fiction came to me because at one point I couldn’t finish reading a book, even a small one. In these times of dwindling attention spans, we wanted to tell stories that are quick to consume, but hard to forget. That gave birth to TTT. Chat fiction and tweet stories, among other formats, have made stories more accessible. Over 20 million people read them every week.”
-Anuj Gosalia, Co-founder, Terribly Tiny Tales

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Me, My Shelf, and I

Me, My Shelf and I is a regular column by Verve’s Culture Editor and resident bibliophile, Vivek Tejuja