The Library at Night: Letting you in to those places you might never go

Have you ever fancied having a look around the Megabibliotheca in Mexico City or the ancient Biblioteco Vasconcelos in the city of Alexandria, or just have a nosy in the Library of Canadian Parliament? Well actually, you can, and all you have to do is sit in a room full of trees and books to do it.

A partnership between Ex Machina, Robert LePage, Alberto Manguel and the Bibliotheque et Archives Nationales du Quebec (BAnQ) in Montreal has brought 10 of the most fascinating, beautiful or historic libraries from past and present directly to your hands, or eyes, in a creative exhibition unlike anything you’ll ever have seen before. Due to finish at the end of August, the exhibition has been running since October last year, and I had the opportunity to take it in while I was in Montreal last November, and was blown away by the majesty of the ability that it gives you to take in the traditions of books and reading from the past, as well as in other cultures.

As you walk into BAnQ, you are taken to a small room which is set up to look like a very small, personal library, with old books and fireplaces and relics from days gone past. After a short speech about what’s to come, you proceed into the main exhibition room, a large space filed with trees with books as leaves, and sit at one of the many tables which are adorned with reading lamps.

Then you put on your video immersion headset, and you’re transported to a world of libraries, where nobody else knows you, nobody can interrupt you and all you can see are people enjoying the written word, immersing themselves in an alternate reality. From a Japanese library where traditions and reading intertwined, to a Buddhist library where only monks were allowed to enter, and the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, the gems that you discover while you enter and depart from each of the incredible structures is just as fascinating.

The Library at Night, so called after Alberto Manguel’s book of the same name (in French), was designed to help visitors fall back in love with libraries as they take a virtual tour of some of the most beautiful ones in the world. The library has been open in Montreal for 10 years, and is trying to make its mark on the city as a bridge between the technological world and home life, and create a new meeting place, almost like a church, where people can get together, learn something new, and have their minds engaged.

The exhibition, which is available in both French and English, is well worth a visit, because even if you hadn’t thought of visiting a library before, you will afterwards. Because why miss out on a tour you can take while sitting on a comfortable chair, in a beautiful room, in an exquisite city?

Reading habits haven’t changed that much then, according to art historians

With people the world over worried about the development of reading habits, whether we read traditional books, self-published books or e-books, or not at all, there are those fearing that reading is becoming a dying art. But a recent study into the reading habits of medieval Europeans have revealed that we are not so different from our ancestors, and neither are our reading habits.

Kathryn Rudy, an Art History lecturer at the University of St Andrews recently embarked on a project of analysing several 15th and early 16th century prayer books from Europe in order to discover more information about the reading habits of our medieval ancestors. Of course, these books couldn’t tell exactly how much the books were read, or how often people spent time sitting down with a glass of wine and a good book, but Ms Rudy was able to tell what portions of the books particularly interested those that were living at the time, thanks to the darkness of thumbed pages.

The pages that were the dirtiest turned out to be the most read, while those that were clean meant that they were of little interest to medieval readers and were probably not read so much. Just like us, then, the study revealed that readers were worried about illnesses, and the books that were studied showed that the most popular pages were about the plague, and a particular prayer that was said to ward off the disease was also very well read.

In another nod to modern times, Rudy said that pages containing prayers for personal redemption as opposed to that of other people were eagerly delivered in the past.

Of course, the simple reading of a prayer book is not as common in modern times, especially as in the past, according to Rudy, personal health and religion were one and the same, and so in order to remain in good physical health many people would spent the modern equivalent of tens of thousands of pounds on prayer books. Now, where we might pay a visit to the doctor, those living in medieval times might prefer to say a prayer at key prayer times throughout the day.

One last similarity between our modern reading habits and those of our ancestors, is the art of falling asleep while reading, as Rudy said that a particular prayer earmarked for reading in the early hours of the morning showed clear signs of putting the reader to sleep. Those particular prayers had clearly been thumbed through heavily for the first few pages, but the following pages were cleaner, and showed that the readers did not finish, and most likely all fell asleep at the same point. So if you fall asleep when reading, don’t worry, it’s an old family trait!

Adult colouring books: a childish fad or an important development in therapy?

When five out of ten of Amazon’s bestselling books are colouring books, one has to wonder just what exactly it is about the adult colouring faze that has swept not just the nation but the world. Forget writing your great novel, think about designing an adult colouring book, that’s where the money is, you might think.

There is split opinion as to whether or not the rise of colouring books for those above the age of eight is just a faze, or whether it’s actually something good, or in some cases, bad for us. An article in the Telegraph recently called adult colouring books a childish fad that is actually serving to regress our educational and developmental progression. The writer in not so many words said that adults favouring books, movies and other activities designed for children is proof that modern culture is abandoning the idea of adulthood, resigning themselves to the fact that becoming an adult is hard work, discouraging and unromantic.

This is perhaps true in one way or another, but simply enjoying animated movies or reading books in the young adult category does not necessarily mean that one is avoiding becoming an adult, it simply means that we no longer see categories as boundaries. Blurring those boundaries, surely means that modern culture has become more open, more flexible, and more willing to accept things at face value rather than reading between the lines.

There is another argument that adult colouring books are none of the above. Not a fad, not proof of our resistance, or evidence of our flexibility, but actually a tool for therapy and meditation. When one of my friends recently lost somebody close to him, he was given a colouring book as something to focus on when he needed a distraction, some quiet time or soothing. It seems to be a common idea, as the National Post  recently published an article about a mother who lost her 10 week old son and found her solace in a colouring book.

Psychologists believe that colouring books can work just as well as other stress relieving techniques such as yoga and meditation, and according to Craig Sawchuk from the Mayo Clinic when he spoke to the National Post, colouring can help to slow down the heart rate and respiration, ultimately calming somebody down, as well as relax your muscles and stimulate the brain. This essentially is a grounding technique, which can be used for anybody going through any kind of mental discomfort to focus on the object at hand, and take a break from whatever else is going on in your life. It doesn’t have to be all about stress relief, grief or healing from trauma, because everybody needs a little time out every once in a while, so why not do it while colouring?!

Mark Zuckerberg’s reading challenge: will it make a difference to the reading industry?

At the beginning of 2015 Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced (on Facebook, how else?) that his new year’s resolution was to read one new book every other week, and in doing so he began an online book club aimed at getting more of his social network users to read for a hobby.

The public Facebook Page, “A Year of Books” has more than 450,000 members all of whom are informed of the books which are being read and invited to discuss it, as long as the conversation stays relevant. Readers are invited, also, to make suggestions about books that Zuckerberg should read and let him know of any further developments surrounding them.

The question is, just what will Zuckerberg’s challenge do for the industry of reading? Albeit Mr Zuckerberg is not exactly a celebrity that everybody dreams to follow in the footsteps of such as Brad Pitt or Taylor Swift, but he is successful and with it he is also persuasive. Those that are following his challenge and even joining him in it are likely to be fans of Facebook, of course, but they are also more likely to already be avid readers.

That being said, in the last year or so there have been many more book clubs pop up in my local community, and I’m sure in your community as well. The opportunity to read, share and discuss a book with like-minded people is an unmissable opportunity for anybody who enjoys reading, and anybody who just doesn’t have time to do it. The pressure (for lack of a better word) of having to read a book for a book club is surely enough persuasion for somebody who has little time on their hands to make some space, sit down, read and enjoy.

Zuckerberg also uses his book club to invite authors into the discussion, something that most of us would not be able to do with our community book clubs. Authors are invited to hold a question and answer session with other members of the book club to allow them to delve deeper into the meaning behind the book and the motivation behind the writing of it. How much Zuckerberg himself has to do with the actual book club remains to be seen, as all posts on the Facebook page are done under the alias of the book club itself, although as somebody who has publicly completed several New year’s challenges in the past, we have no reason not to believe that he is reading the books along with everybody else.

Here’s hoping that Zuckerberg’s profile and well publicised book club has invited many more readers into the folds of reading for pleasure.

For better or for worse: eReaders are changing our reading habits

Technological change has taken over many aspects of our lives over recent years, and with radical changes affecting television, music and film industries it is little surprise that the publishing industry has also seen some big changes. eBooks are well and truly on their way to taking over print books, and while that may never actually happen, those choosing eBooks over printed books are a lot more in population these days than they used to be.

However, the rise in popularity of eBooks is changing consumers’ reading habits as quickly as the industry’s technology is changing. And the faster that technology changes, the faster our reading habits become. The ultimate question is: are eBooks making our reading habits unhealthy? Or are we simply speeding up to keep up with the demands of our faster paced lifestyles?

Paper books offer an opportunity for readers to read their chosen prose slowly, taking in all of the important parts and savouring the deliciously well-written literature. It is comparable to eating nutritious food slowly in order to take in all of the nutrients and enjoy the taste of the food sufficiently. On the other hand, an eBook is traditionally read a lot quicker and in a more superficial way – readers will scan pages and not take in all of the details in order to get through it faster, and as opposed to paper books it is much harder to flick back through the pages in order to double check some information that the reader has missed.

Many readers might say that their main purpose of reading in pleasure, perhaps it is for information, or perhaps it is for enjoyment. One of the most important purposes of reading, however, is to think, and those that read regularly on an eReader move along much more briskly than they would do if they read a paper book, leaving no time to linger and think as they go. eBooks, in this case, will defeat their own purpose; deep thinking, lingering and slow reading do not mix with technology.

eBook sales have recently plateaued, but sales have not begun to decrease, suggesting that those fans of digital books are not losing interest, despite the change in their reading habits. Some might suggest that in order for eBooks to retain their popularity, the way that they are read will have to become more thoughtful, more social and perhaps even more innovative. The future is bright for eBooks, but the changing reader habits that we have discussed may also mean that the future will stay bright for paper books.

Print books are making a comeback as it seems eBooks are not taking over after all

Ever since eBooks began gaining in popularity, fans of print books have worried that they would soon see the death of their beloved hard and paper bound novels. Libraries have struggled to cope with the decrease in demand for print books, and some have declared that the introduction of digital books is changing the publishing industry forever.

However, according to recent figures, sales of print books have actually overtaken sales of their digital counterparts and in the first half of this year more print books were sold that eBooks. Numbers revealed by Nielson Books & Consumer showed that eBooks took up only 23 percent of sales in the industry for the first six months of 2014, while hardcover books made up 25 percent and paperbacks were 42 percent of book sales.

Not only did print books as a whole overtake eBook sales, but both hardbound and paperbound books sold more separately than eBooks did. Some might wonder whether this is showing a slowing in the popularity of eBooks, or whether those that turned to digital books in the first place have come full circle and gone back towards the traditional.

Bloomsbury publishers have agreed with the latest figures that the popularity of eBooks has ceased to grow in popularity; however they have insisted that this doesn’t mean that the popularity is on the decline. Publishers have suggested that eBooks have simply hit their peak, at least for now, and Richard Charkin, the managing director of adult books at Bloomsbury, has said that “the US market is certainly reporting a plateau.”

Mr Charkin also added that some countries with more emerging markets have been slow to warm up to the idea of e-readers and the concept of eBooks, but he did insist that it is likely that these markets will grow, thus putting a stop to the plateau that we are currently seeing. “Not for a moment do I think this is the top of the market,” he said as he insisted that we are by no means seeing the end of eBooks in our future.

Fans of print books believe that we are also nowhere near seeing the end of reading our favourite novels on paper, with author Stephen King saying that he believes print books have a long and bright future ahead of them. “I think books are going to be there for a long, long time to come,” he said, commenting on the popularity of books, both print and digital.

Considering the latest figures and comments retrieved from those within the industry, hope amongst those who are lovers of print as well as writers of print will be wondering whether it is time for them to breathe a sigh of relief. If these developments continue, then those wondering if we are close to seeing the death of print books will soon be proved very, very wrong.

Reading for pleasure is no longer the ugly duckling… but we still need to work on it

There was once a time when, particularly for high school students and teenagers, reading for pleasure was seen as an ‘uncool’ hobby and one that was looked upon as the ‘ugly duckling’ of extra-curricular activities. Students only read books that were assigned to them and those that read more at home found themselves hiding their latest novel under their pillow whenever they got a visit from a friend.

Last week I surveyed a group of six higher education students, all of whom spoke a different mother tongue, and who were all of different age groups. Not one of them read for pleasure. The most reading any of them did was through the text book from which they were studying, or through the free newspaper that they collected on the bus on the way to work.

The idea that reading is no longer pleasurable is simply not acceptable to me, a keen reader, or acceptable to many other writers and novelists who spend their time striving to write prose that will be pleasurable to those that happen upon it. Reading should be pleasurable for all those who have a comfortable arm chair and a glass of wine, because what could be more relaxing after a long day at work than getting stuck into a good book?

Luckily, despite the surprising responses I got last week, a report from Pew Research has found that adolescents and those in their early to mid-twenties actually read more than some of their elders. The report shows that those who have grown up since the new millennium get more pleasure from a good book than those aged 30 or older.

In fact, this survey, which concentrated on Americans between the ages of 16 to 29, showed that 88 percent of those surveyed have read at least one book in the last year, and the median number was actually 10. Comparatively, only 79 percent of people 30 have read at least one book in the last year, showing that the younger generation is definitely getting back into the idea that reading can be fun, and not just for study.

Around 43 percent of those categorised at ‘millennials’, or those who grew up in the new millennium, told Pew Research that they read books on a daily basis, a percentage that is considerably higher than those aged 30 or above who read books every day. Those that treasure reading as a valued part of their day are becoming a larger percentage of the population, leading us to believe with some hope that reading is coming full circle, and instead of being the black sheep of hobbies, it will instead be a cherished activity that people will save parts of their day for. Writers and readers alike will benefit from this change in trends, as more readers means more books to write, and more books written means more choice for readers.