Books in the Digital Age

Is curling up to read on a tablet just as good as curling up with an actual book?

NYU Abu Dhabi's Charisma of the Book Conference brought together scholars from across a range of disciplines — from religion to art history — to ask this kind of unique 21st century question and explore the cultural status and social power of the book in today's digital age. They debated at length about whether the online reading experience lacks the charisma of a good old fashioned printed book.

"Google Search is the most contemporary of cultural reading techniques” said Mercedes Bunz, University of Westminster School of Media, Arts and Design. But professor Bunz also argues that "information is not knowledge. It is an uncharismatic digital world where there is too much information.”

quote

Information is not knowledge and it is an uncharismatic digital world where there is too much information.

Mercedes Bunz, University of Westminster School of Media, Arts and Design

The Internet changed how people seek out and consume books, news, and even academia, and now many people choose to read digitally because it’s often easier, faster, and cheaper than going to a bookstore or local library.

New Looks For Books

What does it mean, exactly, for a book (or information, for that matter) to have charisma? Like jazz music, said Philip Kennedy of NYUAD's Library of Arabic Literature (LAL), book charisma is somewhat undefinable, although it is partly aesthetics and evolving quickly to align with digital trends.

Cover art designers have adapted to Amazon thumbnail specifications to ensure titles are readable on mobile phones. And publishers are more deliberate and strategic with illustrations, images and style to keep readers entertained.

Modern readers are looking for visual stimulation and as a result, even historic religious works like the Qaran are being reproduced with new imagery to improve accessibility, said Shawkat Toorawa, associate professor of Arabic Literature and Islamic Studies at Cornell University.

books-16-9

Transforming books from old to new presents a unique set of challenges for organizations like the Library of Arabic Literature. Old Arabic texts were written in archaic style for readers of the time, said Kennedy, and translating historic works to English in the modern era "takes time and it’s hard work.”

“We want these translations to be 21st century translations," he said.

Digital Means Global Accessibility

The charisma or effectiveness of online reading versus print is also debatable. Digitization has, however, opened doors to instant and widespread knowledge; sharing that simply wasn’t possible even a few decades ago.

NYUAD is collecting thousands of pieces of historic Arabic literature — from poetry to regional scientific research — and putting them online for the rest of the world to see for the first time. Arabic Collections Online provides unprecedented global access to a range of rarely seen Arabic materials that are either out of print or expensive to reproduce. Going digital was the answer and it seems to have been the right one.

“For the past year, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Algeria have consistently provided the largest groups of readers,” said NYUAD’s Ginny Danielson, director of libraries and manager of the project. “We even had noticeable numbers off and on in Syria," she added, and website visitors from as far away as South America.

quote

Civil disruption of life in some Middle Eastern countries sometimes prevents (book) delivery but it doesn’t prevent curiosity.

Ginny Danielson, Arabic Collections Online

In the Middle East especially, Danielson noted, digitization makes sense because book delivery is too costly and can be disrupted by conflict. “But it doesn’t prevent curiosity nor eliminate the social needs that arise from that” curiosity.

Danielson said she receives messages all the time from people asking when more books will be uploaded. The project has delivered Abu Dhabi bookshelves to audiences worldwide, including university professors who use the materials in their classrooms.

Consistent positive feedback led Danielson to conclude that “these online books seem to have a little charisma,” even if what that means is open to interpretation.

Written by Andy Gregory, NYUAD Public Affairs