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Wisdom of the printed page

Updated: 2014-02-22 07:56
By Raymond Zhou ( China Daily)

It is true that you cannot claim that only content on a printed page is knowledge. Anything that's printed can be displayed digitally. There are millions of books available in digital form. And true electronic books can incorporate sound and video, thus enhancing the reading experience. Print is going the way of dinosaurs, many forecast. Even if they don't vanish completely, books will become a niche item a la long-playing records.

To those who believe they can get anything and everything from the Web, I'll hereby add my two cents' worth: Yes, you can, but you won't do it. I download thousands of books, but I use them for research, a sort of personal database for specific information. I've also noticed my friends and colleagues read fiction only on their tablets. Simply because a medium is capable of something does not mean people or a significant number of them will swarm to it for that purpose.

I believe reference books are most easily replaced by their digital versions and the kind of essay collections popular among China's literati are the most unlikely to make the transition.

Now, I'm not going to cite statistics about Chinese consumption of books. While they invariably paint a bleak picture compared with previous generations or advanced countries, the truth could be even bleaker. My publishers (I work with several publishing houses in China) told me that most of the best-sellers in China would not even make the popular list. The reason: They are textbooks or supplement reading material, in other words, books that students are forced to read, or rather, forced to buy.

So, let's compare China's best-seller list with that of the New York Times. While the latter has a mix of serious books, especially about history, and celebrity memoirs, the former is almost totally fluff. A walk through an airport bookstore will bring you more doom and gloom: mostly how-to-get-rich titles written by those who've done it or who claim to have the secret recipe.

On top of that, there are buyers of books in China who decorate their rooms with wall-to-wall tomes but never bother to open the pages. As a result, a cottage industry has appeared that churns out thick volumes that have nothing between the covers, perfect for decoration.

Yes, people do read in China to enrich their bank accounts, but not to enrich themselves holistically. Sure, this is a trend, which means it does not apply to everyone. The terms "fragmentary reading" or "light reading" are efforts to encapsulate this phenomenon of a nation whose people have only recently unfettered the shackles of poverty and have not found the need to elevate themselves onto a higher plane of enlightenment and enrichment. Not yet.

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