It’s no secret that the digital age has affected every aspect of our lives from the moment we wake up to the moment we go to sleep. Our lives are consumed with looking at different screens and reading various texts, emails and other documents.

As we’re all technically reading now more than ever, we’re also bombarded with images and videos from all platforms that have drastically changed how we process information.

So, how does this affect people’s reading habits when it comes to books?

With the pandemic forcing everyone to stay home, many people decided to turn to a hobby that garners mixed reactions: reading.

While many businesses, including bookstores, have permanently shut their doors, new businesses and bookstores have taken their place, such as Book Haven Books, a NJ-based online bookstore owned by 39-year-old Clifton native Tara Torres. Torres grew up in North Bergen and lived in West New York and Union City throughout her twenties.

“Hudson County will always be home, no matter where I physically live,” she told Slice of Culture.

Torres opened her bookstore in January 2022.

“Books have always been an important part of my life, and in my thirties, it became important to me to diversify my personal reading and create a home library for my children that they were able to see themselves in that also represents the world around them,” Torres said. “Book Haven Books was born out of a desire to create a safe literary space where others who are interested in reading diverse books could easily access these titles.”

The store’s mission is to celebrate diverse stories and provide a spotlight on BIPOC and LGBTQ+ authors and sells books for people of all ages (both fiction and nonfiction), as well as tote bags, bookmarks, candles, journals, and mugs.

Torres has felt tremendous support from the community regarding her bookstore and her mission of celebrating diversity in books.

“Hudson County is such a beautifully diverse population, and people want to see themselves represented on the page. One thing we have repeatedly heard is they would love to see a brick-and-mortar bookshop that reflects the diversity of the community, which is our next goal,” she said.

You can find the bookstore at various pop-up locations and community events throughout Hudson County, as well as other parts of northern New Jersey, and on their website and Instagram @bookhavenbooks.

(Gabrielle Sheehan / SOC Images)

With teachers across the country reporting that their students are performing well below their grade level, specifically in reading comprehension, it ‘s arguably more important now than ever to encourage reading both in and out of the classroom.

As legislators are continuously calling to ban books across the country, access to reading might become limited in certain states, which will prevent children from improving their critical thinking and analytical skills on material that is presented to them, whether it’s through books or other forms of media. At a time where misinformation can quickly spread due to the rapid pace of social media, some people have argued how essential it is for people to know how to think deeply and critically about what they’re reading and the sources in which they receive this information.

Book bans bring up the topic of censorship, especially since these books include authors/characters who are BIPOC and LGBTQ.

Banned Books Week, which occurred from Oct. 1 to Oct. 7 this year, was launched in 1982 to bring the book community together “in shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas.”

With the future of the access to books in schools remaining uncertain, spreading awareness on the mission of Banned Book Week and educating others on the importance of reading are crucial in fighting for the freedom to read.

“I believe Banned Book Week is important to shine a light on the censorship of books that is currently on the rise across the country. Reading is a fundamental freedom, and we should all have the ability to choose what we are able to read. Banned Book Week is a wonderful way to get people involved with the great work that libraries are doing to fight back against censorship,” Torres added.

Children’s book publishing company Scholastic responded to the book bans by announcing that there will be a separate section at its famous Scholastic Book Fair for books about race, gender, and sexuality called “Share Every Story, Celebrate Every Voice.”

While the company believes this is the best alternative to getting around the book ban since they are still providing this selection of books, this decision has been criticized by avid readers and former Scholastic Book Fair patrons for allowing librarians to opt out of including these books at their schools’ fairs. Critics also believe that this separation provides an easier way for schools to exclude diverse stories, which will ultimately deny students the opportunity to gain empathy and a new perspective on the world from these stories.

However, Scholastic has since went back on this decision and recently announced that it will no longer separate books based on race, gender and sexuality at its book fairs starting in January and will work on an alternate plan for the remaining fairs. While the company hasn’t announced what the book fair will look like in 2024, Scholastic Trade Publishing President Ellie Berger apologized for this controversial decision on behalf of the company and expressed its commitment to BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ authors and stories and providing access to these books in schools across the country.

Librarians, authors, and bookstores (like Book Haven Books) continue to advocate for the freedom to read and providing access to books on all subjects.

“Banned books disproportionately affects books written and about LGBTQ and people of color and silences their voices,” Torres said.

“These marginalized communities are already less represented in books, and by banning books we are sending a message that these communities don’t matter or should not be seen. We believe representation is important, and you could say that Book Haven Books and our mission is a direct response to the increase of banning books. We will work hard to put these books into the hands of the people that deserve to see themselves represented.”

With the digital age permanently cementing itself as an integral part of our society, people can read books in a variety of ways besides picking up a physical copy. Whether it’s on a Kindle, laptop or even an audiobook, there are a plethora of ways for people to become immersed in the world of reading through other means.

However, one looming question remains for authors, publishers, and avid readers alike: how has the digital age altered people’s reading and book spending habits?

“I opened the bookstore at a very interesting time. It was the beginning of the end of the pandemic, and there was a resurgence of people reading and looking to get back into reading physical books,” Torres explained. “Of course, in the age of technology, we will always be competing with digital books and audiobooks, but we have been blessed to find a community of readers who still have a veracious appetite for physical books. We have also partnered with LibroFM to be able to provide audiobooks to our customers.”

While more people are opting for digital books and audiobooks due to convenience, there are still so many others who prefer the feel of looking at and holding a physical book.

Book clubs and communities are still popular both in person and online, and book lovers across the country are embracing all the new ways for the community to stay connected, including Torres.

“It is important to keep our community engaged by creating opportunities to connect with readers in real life by attending pop-up events throughout Hudson County and creating our own in-person events,” she said.

“Because we do not have a physical location yet, we want to make sure we create plenty of opportunities for us to engage with the public by participating in pop-up events throughout Hudson County and creating our own events, like our Adult Book Fair that we have hosted at Corgi Spirits in Jersey City. By creating opportunities for us to connect with readers and for readers to connect with one another, we are creating more than just a customer base but a true community. We also keep our readers engaged on social media by providing book recommendations and highlighting the new diverse books that we have to our virtual shelves each week.”

The most recent Book Fair was on Thursday, Oct. 12 at Corgi Spirits, with dozens of attendees perusing the stacks to find their next read and a book signing from debut author and Newark native Ariel Amanda whose book “Biracial Blues” focuses on growing up biracial.

(Gabrielle Sheehan / SOC Images)

“When I was growing up, my mom didn’t know anything about my hair. I asked questions about my culture because I did look different from my other cousins. I grew up confused and wanted to help other people,” Amanda said about her book.

“I didn’t know if people would care about this topic. I’m really grateful for this experience, and I’m really glad I put this on paper because I didn’t know all of this was bothering me.”

She wrote the book in two months after initially wanting to write a fiction book but got stuck during the process. As she was able to write about her personal authentic experiences, it was easier for her to not only write the book but publish it.

Amanda loved the atmosphere of the event and how welcoming everyone was, especially since it was her first book event she attended as an author.

“I love reading and being in any bookstore. I also love being around other authors and small business owners in general. It is hard when you’re not going through traditional publishing, so I like being around others who had to go through it their own way, whether it’s Amazon or finding a self-publishing company.”

While Amanda is an avid reader, she was nervous that people wouldn’t read it in the digital age and described it as a nerve-wracking experience, as she was unsure if people would be interested in the topic or buy the book.

Catie, a Jersey City resident, felt comfortable at the Book Fair right away and praised the host and author for being so welcoming. As someone who had never gone to an event hosted by the bookstore before, she loved that the event was cozy and fun.

“I got more feminist books and one kind of magical one, so I really liked the selection. There was a bunch to choose from,” Catie said of her purchases at the fair.

While she normally orders physical copies of books through Amazon or other online shops due to how her schedule is, she does try to go into a bookstore when she can, “I prefer to go in places to buy books so I can really take my time and justify if I want it or not. It’s also nice to go out somewhere and going to a store for a good reason.”

Stu Horvath, who was born and raised in Kearny, also hosted a book event at Corgi Spirits in Jersey City on Wednesday, Oct. 18, for his book “Monsters, Aliens, and Holes in the Ground: A Guide to Tabletop Roleplaying Games from D&D to Mothership.”

The book was inspired by the @vintagerpg Instagram, which features art and history from various tabletop games.

“It was a natural sort of evolution of the Instagram feed in book form. A gentleman named Ed Park pushed me to write it. The text of the book took about six months over the tail end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020 and three months of editing and production time for the layout and art last year,” Horvath said.

While Horvath has written other books, he stated “this is the first that feels more like a real book to me because MIT Press is putting it out and it’s distributed by Penguin Random House. I’ve done a whole bunch of books through Unwinnable, which is my magazine and publishing company, but they’re more like zines.”

Stu Horvath sells his copies at Corgi Spirits. (Gabrielle Sheehan / SOC Images)

Horvath has overcome several difficulties when publishing and selling his book in the digital age.

He describes himself as “a small digitally focused do-it-yourselfer,” so working with a larger company to this degree presented its own challenges.

“There have just been so many challenges of scale that it’s really hard to function in. I generally think that traditional publishing is slow to adapt to everything, and it’s particularly frustrating.” As Horvath has previously worked at The Daily News working on pieces every day and worked on pieces with his company Unwinnable both weekly and monthly, he’s used to working at a faster pace and receiving that immediate satisfaction, which is “not something that necessarily happens in the larger publishing ecosystem.”

Horvath was incredibly grateful for the book launch and how many people attended.

“I can’t get over the fact that there’s so many people here. It’s such a new thing,” he said. His friend Lauren put the event together, as the book launched on Tuesday, Oct. 10.

“That was great, and it was an experience, but it didn’t feel like something the way a wedding does or a funeral does. There was no period at the end of the sentence, and [the book launch] very much feels like that. This is real and we’re processing it together, and it’s great having all these folks come out and talking to people.”

Horvath is thrilled that people are buying the book in the digital age, especially since there’s no digital alternative for his book.

“This is a polished piece of prose [compared to the rougher form on the Instagram], and I think it’s really gratifying to touch it, to hold it. We took a lot of care in crafting the book to make it a satisfying physical object to read, and people seem to be responding to it,” Horvath said.

Kyle Patterson, the illustrator of the book cover and all the art in the book that isn’t photography, was an essential collaborator.

“The cover is so good, and he’s such a fantastic talent, my secret talent. He called me and was so excited to see his art on the page reproduced the way he wanted. Seeing it digitally, it wasn’t real until it was on the page the way it was designed to be, and now it’s real for him because he got his copies in the mail. To a lesser degree, that’s the experience we’re hoping to deliver to readers.”

Patterson has worked on some Unwinnable covers, some commission work, and has also done a lot of work for the Monty Python roleplaying game, which is not yet published. However, it is also Paterson’s first published book cover along with Horvath.

There is some Hudson County influence in Horvath’s book, as he mentions local Kearny bookstore Daniel’s Den in the introduction. You can find Horvath’s book anywhere books are sold.

“It was kind of a trip for me when I realized I donated a copy to the library, and there’s a little bit of an oral history of the town that is waiting for Kearny residents to find. I think that nonspecific to the aspects of the roleplaying stuff, the guide to that, the sort of secret memoir stuff that’s in there is very much Kearny and Hudson County and North Jersey in general.”

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