The Digital Book Revolution

A Generational Divide

Since the invention of the manuscript, written texts have been an important part of understanding culture at any point in history. In the 21st century, books are as readily available as food, water, or any basic human need. However, the medium of these scripts has evolved over the past few centuries. While individuals in the medieval era, mainly had access to scrolls, bound books, and folios, today the book can be ‘read,’ in countless different ways. A 2019 study, from Pew Trusts, found that Generation Z, is the most literate of any prior generation, it can be argued that the era of electronic books, is changing the way we read, forever. 

As noted in the “Past in Pixels,” reading:

“we now confront a world where knowledge of books in the form they have been known for five and a half centuries is declining. The angle of this decline will increase; the only questions are the speed at which this will happen in the near future, and how printed books will relate to the possibilities of electronic media.” 

While the digital book has the ability to make the world more accessible, it also possesses the ability to alter the way generations read. As noted previously, children from Generation Z, approximately being born between 1997-2012, are one of the most literate. However, inventions like audiobooks, e-books, and movie adaptations, have altered the way in which future generations read. Those born in the year 1997 and later, have grown up with the internet. While this is an advantage, as having a deep understanding of the online world is essential to surviving in the modern world, dependence on digital mediums will forever alter the way we understand the world. 

The number of US Gen Z digital buyers will surpass 37 million in 2021. - Insider Intelligence
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Many children seldom read print books, opting for the accessibility digital versions offer. Furthermore, older generations also have begun to develop attachments to digital mediums. Many working professionals opt for e-books or audiobooks, as they are able to ‘read,’ while completing everyday tasks. People in the 21st century, thrive off of multitasking; as we become more digital, our attention spans decrease and thus require more stimulation, in order to absorb information. As such, audiobooks, have allowed us to read, without, having to take time out of our daily tasks. 

In the medieval era, reading was more of an experience. Creating a book was a strenuous process and was treated as such. One area where books were readily accessible, were religious sanctuaries, like churches, mosques, and synagogues. At this time, fewer individuals were literate, so books acted as reference points for religious speakers at religious services. As the world progressed to be more literate, these books began to have more meaning in many social circles. Because entertainment was limited, people in the medieval world, needed to find recreation in other areas. As such, reading became a way for them to ‘escape,’ from their lives, and become more connected to the god they believed in. When comparing the generations born into the 21st century to the medieval world, we see a juxtaposition in the way generations value books. As literacy grows, it can be argued that the value we palace on reading decreases. Modern generations lose joy in reading, as access becomes easier. With the world at our fingertips, we have become lazy to what previous generations would have marveled at. 


The Print Revolution 

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The printing revolution for many historians occurred in 1436 when Johannes Gutenberg began work on the invention of a new printing press that allowed molding of new type blocks from a uniform template that allowed for the creation of high-quality printed books. From this, emerged the Gutenberg bible, which changed the way books were printed forever. 

The printing press was a major factor in the establishment of the protestant reformation and scientific revolution. The printing press made authorship more meaningful and profitable, as it reduce the labor costs associated with creating a text. Gutenberg’s invention increased literacy, as access to books was now more accessible for the working class. As individuals became more literate, they began to challenge the world they once knew, in order to pursue more ‘meaning,’ in their lives. 

As noted by National Geographic: The Protestant Reformation was a religious reform movement that swept through Europe in the 1500s. It resulted in the creation of a branch of Christianity called Protestantism, a name used collectively to refer to the many religious groups that separated from the Roman Catholic Church due to differences in doctrine.

Martin Luther, a teacher, and a monk published a document he called the 95 Theses. The document was a series of 95 ideas that critiqued Christianity, inviting individuals to debate and learn from his comments. These ideas were controversial because they directly contradicted the Catholic Church’s goals. The invention of the printing press, allowed this to be spread across Europe, which caused a mass shift in the collective consciousness. Like the invention of social media, the 95 Theses, encouraged like-minded individuals to come together. 

As individuals became less dependant on religious entities, they began to look for joy in other mediums. Scientists and non-fiction works, became more common, as thus changed the way society interpreted the written word. In this, we can draw another parallel to modern evolutions in books. 

The 21st century, as seen a push for accessibility and equality for all. Those who cannot afford print books, or who are unable to read in the traditional manner, are now able to access more books than ever before. Like in Martin Luther’s time, the digital revolution, has caused its own type of reform. However, this revolution is less so one that pushes for a shift in collective ideas, the modern world has shown us the importance of making knowledge accessible for everyone, at any time. 

The world of Gutenberg and Luther was one that wished to make the world more literate and open to the problems facing our world. The digital era has taken these concepts and amplified them tenfold. Today, we can read books on any device, and access information in any form we desire. While our dependency on traditional novels has decreased, now more than ever, books are available in endless ways. As such, we can draw connections between revolutions in printing, and ones in the creations of digital novels. 

The future of the book is unclear. However, hypothesizing from the trends of the past, we can infer that as our world becomes more digital, we will see future generations further evolve to make literature more accessible for any and every group, who wishes to learn.