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Susan Miles Gulbransen: Is Reading Better in Print or Digital? Local Authors Weigh In

The turn of the 21st century brought on a new look at ways to read books. The world of digital print or e-books was taking over. Digital sales climbed while print books declined. Forecasters saw major changes in reading material — print books would slowly disappear except for rare exceptions while e-books would take over the publishing industry. Bookstores would become obsolete while online sales would climb higher than Pluto.

For 12 years, these forecasts seemed right on. After that, the sales of digital books slowed down, becoming almost static. In 2015, sales fell 10 percent, according to data collected by the Association of American Publishers from nearly 1,200 publishers.

In 2016, e-book sales declined 18.7 percent. Paperback sales jumped up 7.5 percent, and hardback sales increased 4.1 percent.

Meanwhile, children's books and cookbooks have taken their own paths, continuing to be more popular in print.

The Pew Research Center reported that 65 percent of Americans in 2015 read printed books compared with 28 percent who read e-books.

Instead of adding more statistics to this modern way of reading, I asked several local authors what they preferred.

T.C. Boyle's The Relive Box and Other Stories (Ecco, 2017) demonstrates Boyle's mastery of the short story with humor, surprise and emotion.

“I prefer an actual, hold-in-your-hand, sniff-and-lick, shiny-covered book at all times, except when I am off on a book tour and must travel light (last winter)," he said. "I came back from a tour of the German-speaking countries, and the Kindle served me well.”

Grace Rachow is executive director of the Santa Barbara Writers Conference, which had a successful week last month.

“I had a chat with award-winning author Dara Horn after she spoke to the SBWC audience one evening (last month)," Rachow said. "I loved her novel Eternal Life, about a 2,000-year-old woman could not die and ‘read’ the recorded version twice on Audible. We compared notes on what we were reading and how.

“Dara, a traditionalist, likes books in print. I prefer listening to recordings while doing mundane chores and getting ready at the same time. Dara listens to podcasts while driving, but doesn’t consider recorded novels because she might miss important details. I pulled out my iPhone and played 30 seconds of Eternal Life. She apparently liked it, because she said she’d give recorded books a try.”

Betsy J. Green is the author of Way Back When: Santa Barbara 2017: Tales of Everyday Life in Santa Barbara 100 Years Ago (El Barbareno Publishing, 2017). Her 2018 book will come out later this year.

“I don’t have a Kindle. Maybe because I read the morning news on my computer, I associate computers with stress and unpleasant feelings," she said. "I like to ease into bed at night with a good book, and relax. Ahh! It’s my reward for working hard all day. I like the feel of books. I like the smell of books. Although there is actually a scented aerosol spray called Smell of Books, which promises you can have the ‘convenience of an e-book and the smell of your favorite paper book.’ I’m still a paper-and-ink kind of gal.”

Pico Iyer wrote 100 Journeys for the Spirit: Sacred*Inspiring*Mysterious*Enlightening (Watkins Publishing, 2017) about traveling to places that add meaning to our lives.

“I’ve read books only on the page — I’m so out of it, I can barely read an article on a screen — but I really don’t mind how or where people read so long as they’re not depriving themselves of one of the soulful and sustaining entertainments of the age,” he said.

Diana Raab, author of Writing for Bliss: A Seven-Step Plan for Telling Your Story and Transforming Your Life (Loving Healing Press, 2017), offers hints for the craft and creativity of writing stories.

“I mostly read in print because I make notes in my books that I refer to later," she said. "I travel a lot and always bring my Kindle as a back-up reader. I usually have one hardcover in my suitcase and then a few books downloaded on my Kindle.”

H.A. Drake is a UCSB history professor emeritus and author of A Century of Miracles: Christians, Pagans, Jews and the Supernatural, 312-410 (Oxford University Press, 2017).

“For fiction, I'm addicted to e-books from the library, mostly because we’re hard-pressed for bookshelf space," he said. "I think twice and again before buying another book. Also, they're convenient when traveling. I can access the system from anywhere if I want to take out more. My wife, Kathy, uses a Kindle and I use a Nook. We're both addicted to our own versions.”

Sharon Dirlam is a former Santa Barbara News-Press reporter and city editor, Los Angeles Times staff writer and author of Beyond Siberia (McSeas Books, 2004), a memoir about serving in Russia in the Peace Corps (1996-1998).

“I read a book however I want to — introduction, back cover, ending, chapter headings, and finally, the first page of the book. Opening sentence. Characters springing to life. New worlds emerging. By the fourth or fifth chapter, I return to earlier pages," she said. "Who is this malevolent force? How did this circumstance start? I prefer the printed pages. I can flip back and forth, savor at my own pace, read with my own rhythm.

“Then why is my Kindle chock full of books? Convenience. I can order a book at midnight and start reading in the early morning hours. It weighs little so can be tucked into my purse. It’s portable and doesn’t require bookcases. But given a choice, I’ll take a printed book any day.”

Brian Fagan is a professor emeritus of anthropology at UCSB and author of The Little History of Archaeology: Little Histories (Yale University Press, April 2018).

“I've no particular preference as to whether I read books electronically or in hard copy," he said. "The latter tend to be books that I am using for research or that I refer to again and again — it is much easier to use them than a book in cyberspace. Novels and more lighthearted fare I tend to read on my iPad, which is, of course, ideal for long plane journeys.”

Hattie Beresford will hold a book signing for The Way It Was: Santa Barbara Comes of Age (2017) at 7 p.m. July 24 at Chaucer's.

“I definitely prefer a book over a screen," she said. "Between research and writing, I spend way too much time in front of a screen but use my iPad for reading when traveling. I usually have at least one paperback as well.

“I grew up with books; I savor them. There are shelves upon shelves of books in my house. When I finally wrote my own book, I had some done as a real book — hardbound, cloth cover, gold foil stamp, with a dust cover.”

Now that summer reads time is here, choose a good book (hard print or digital) and enjoy to the max!

Noozhawk columnist Susan Miles Gulbransen — a Santa Barbara native, writer and book reviewer — teaches writing at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference and through the Santa Barbara City College Continuing Education Division. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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