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The Value of Print – A Bookstore in Kunming

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In Daguan Residential District in Wuhua District, Kunming, lies Kunming Daguan Bookstore, a hidden reader's paradise. As one enters Qin Zihan's spacious flat, one is enveloped by musty nostalgia that only old texts can emit. The apartment is open concept with ample window space and old crafts making it an ideal and cozy place for visitors to explore the piles and shelves of books, journals, newspapers and scribblers. It is especially a treat for lovers of anthropology, ethnology and Yunnan history.

Sculpture by Matti Dubee
Sculpture by Matti Dubee

So how did this project begin? Qin's family started this massive writing collection on April 2, 1985. Back then, the project was actually open to the public as a bookstore vis-à-vis the Distribution Department of Yunnan Nationalities Publishing House. She reminisces back to when she was a child when the space was large enough to ride bicycles in. Since its inception, the bookstore has undergone considerable changes as the business has become more niche and professional. Now, her flat suffices as the location.

Nonetheless, there is considerable demand from the academic community for her project's materials – particularly in the realm of the history and culture of Yunnan. In light of the more recent and popular phenomenon of e-books and online shopping, fewer folks are purchasing books in brick-and-mortar bookstores. In recent years, Qin changed the business model in order to present the project to the public.

Qin "Zebra" Zihan
Qin "Zebra" Zihan

Despite the wave of digitization sweeping the literary and academic world, Qin is confident the "old school" practice of reading and acquiring written material will continue to prosper. She strongly believes it is because of the fast-paced nature of our times that collections like her own will be more meaningful. Qin is self-assured traditional culture will return for people to remember the sentimental value of paper books. The professionalism of her collection is intertwined with the fact that it is not digital. As a result, she will not digitalize any of her written material. She is quite comfortable expanding the physical volumes for public use and will move in the direction of private libraries.

Art on display
Art on display

There is merit in this way of thinking. According to Anne Mangen, a Norwegian literacy professor, print reading is meditative since books do not ring or move like devices do. Reading digitally takes more work because print has more cues sensory wise. Digital reading leads to more carelessness since scrolling mirrors normal browsing and the information is not sinking in the same way as with reading print. As a result, the processing of the words becomes emptier.

Studies have shown that the emotional cortexes, the medial prefrontal and cingulate, and the spatial/visual cortex, the parietal, are all stimulated more by the print medium than the digital one. Reading takes focus and the temptation to scroll impedes that. Despite breakthroughs with the e-readers, according to Mangen, turning the page is missing and this negatively affects comprehension. Mangen and Lauren Singer Trakhman, an American reading comprehension researcher, agree that digital suffices for skimming for main ideas but longer and more complex texts should be read in print. In a similar vein, handwriting is better than typing for remembering details (Benson, 2020).

Mark Beare, a marketing agency director, concurs. People enjoy consuming print media because it is more in-depth and thus more engaging. Print stimulates more senses and as a result, readers found themselves easier in the text they are reading. While digital media is online and indeed up-to-date, it is the print form that is more full and versatile in what it has to offer the reader. Once again, print media is uninterrupted and can captivate in ways digital cannot (McCarthy, 2018).

While it is tempting to discard text material to save on space once it is digitized, some folks warn against such behavior. First, what if the digital version is compromised somehow? The original is best for authentication. It is the ultimate authority. Second, the hard drives are stored like books anyway with the hard copy information close at hand for reference (Kahle, 2011). Even computers are hard pressed to get away from books!

Dog sculpture
Dog sculpture

Having books around is simply a good idea. Joanna Sikora's research shows a positive correlation between having more books in the home and increased literacy, information communication technology proficiency and numeracy on top of sharpening one's educational advantage. Furthermore, reading improves brain function, makes us more empathetic and reduces stress. The more books one grows up around in the household, the better. (Katz, 2018).

With China's embracement of social media and smart phone culture, Qin is adamant physical books will be treated even more as treasures. While she does confess digitizing is practical for safekeeping, Qin also believes the books will lose their warmth once they are scanned. Her favorite book in the collection is "The Stories of Yunnan" for it is an introduction to Yunnan history and cultural origins. In her love of this book, we can see the overarching message of her project in that the past of Yunnan culture must be carried forward into the future. Qin states, "Perhaps in the yellowed pages of the books, we can see what the streets of old Kunming looked like, how our nursery rhymes were sung and what legends and stories were found in the mountains of Yunnan."

Image credits

Images of dog sculpture, Qin "Zebra" Zihan, and Art on Display: Stephen Weedon

Additional reading

Dooley, Roger. Paper Beats Digital in Many Ways, According to Neuroscience, Forbes, September 16, 2015

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