By Michelle Reti
Sunday afternoon at the Bayview Hotel in Gladesville, Sydney. Crowds gather around the television screens lining the walls. The fight of the century is about to begin. Behind the crowd and nestled among those around the bar, sit six middle- aged women around a circular wooden table. A fire burns low behind them and their table is scattered with digital tablets, mobile phones and other electronic reading devices. Cradling mugs of coffee and glasses of iced tea, this month’s book club meeting has just commenced.
“I loved this book because I love learning things,” says Mona. “It was entertaining, but it also taught me things.”
“I might have preferred this novel in book form,” says Jana. “Although… I do prefer to use the night function on my e-reader.”
This month’s book, ‘A Fine Balance’ by Rohinton Mistry, was mostly read on mobile phones, tablets and e-readers on the bus and in bed. Their meeting was organised through Facebook. Looking around the table, there is not a physical book in sight.
This is what could best be described as the 21st century book club. Established five years ago, the book club is still without an official name, although the tech-savvy women agree that they are somewhat of a “tough critic group”.
“I give this book a 4 out of 10,” says Casey. “It just wasn’t my cup of tea.”
“It was definitely an 8 and a half for me,” says Nora. “There was more than enough action to keep me interested.”
The women seem oblivious to their surroundings as they engage in conversation. Like youngsters playing pass the parcel at a birthday party, an assortment of mobile phones are handed around the table as the conversation moves swiftly around different aspects of the novel.
“I just didn’t see where this book was going, that’s why I only give it a 7 out of 10,” says Jana. “It was just very complicated towards the end and I am not sure that I enjoyed that aspect of it.”
Pizzas, nachos and large wooden boards covered with meats, cheeses, chargrilled vegetables and crusty bread arrive at the table and their literary conversation is soon interspersed with remarks about food, wine and shopping. The group glances up occasionally as the odd ‘ooh!’ and ‘ahh!’ erupts from the crowd around them.
Book clubs such as this one are not the only ones embracing this new digital reading wave. Since the introduction of the iPad in 2010, libraries around Sydney have started to roll out accessible e-books to library patrons.
“Over the last 12 months we have seen an increase of 35 per cent in e-book loans,” says John Neuhaus, of Ryde Library, “and we have also seen a 7 per cent decrease in physical loans.”
Watching this group of women scroll through their devices, with screens lighting up across the table, is an indication of how this technology is being embraced by book lovers.
“I find that my e-book makes everything more accessible, and I love ‘the define function’ a lot,” says Lucille. “But I do also find that I can get distracted from my e-reader quite easily.”
“I find the numbers on my e-reader really scary to look at. I don’t like seeing that I am only on page 347 out of 1185,” Jana says.
“I agree with that. Also, if it is raining I find I have to concentrate more on my e-reader than I would have to with a physical book but I do find it to be a lot more adaptive for my style of reading,” Casey says.
Library-run book clubs and book services such as those at Ryde and Ku-Ring-Gai have also incorporated this new reading trend into their catalogues in recent months.
“The main reasons we ended up purchasing e-books was due to demand from patrons and to keep up to date with industry trends,” says Lexi Morrall, of Ku-Ring-Gai Council. “Since then, there has been a very positive response to both our e-books and e-magazine selections.”
“An overall pattern that we are seeing is that more people are using the library, but are borrowing less physical items,” John Neuhaus says.
According to Lexi Morrall, the demand for physical books is remaining steady, whereas the demand for e-books is ever increasing. “Lately, there have been patrons signing up to the library to only use the online services, which is a quite new trend,” she says.
Now an e-book convert, Jill Lewis can’t imagine reading books without the ease of her e-reader.
“It is so convenient. It’s more compact, can hold hundreds of books and I can increase the font size so I don’t need my glasses,” she says. “The only time I miss a physical book is when I just need to flick back a few pages to check on something I’ve already read. It’s a lot quicker with a physical book because I can scan the pages easily to find the part I am after.”
However, for the dedicated members of this book club, there will always be room in their hearts for physical books. As Lucille mentions the pleasure of smelling the paper and ink of a hard copy book, a sigh of recognition rolls around the group.
The bistro in which the book club members are seated is now full of people as they decide on next month’s book, ‘The Harp in the South’ by Ruth Park, before laughing over the fact that they should better plan their future meetings so as to avoid major sporting events.