The Future of Reading Shouldn’t Be Digital

Hello! Yes, it has been far, far too long. I’ve been meaning to post something for the last few weeks (as part of my writing schedule. I’ll explain later), but haven’t quite gotten to it yet. I’m one who likes to do things ceremoniously, which means a random post like this kind of bothers me. However, I just read an article on Wired.com called “The Future of Reading, by Jonah Lehrer, and it got me thinking.

In the article, Lehrer talks about the rise of e-readers in the last decade. In his opinion, “the future of books is digital.” The problem he has with is the way in which digital words change the way we read.

“My problem is that consumer technology moves in a single direction: It’s constantly making it easier for us to perceive the content. This is why your TV is so high-def, and your computer monitor is so bright and clear. For the most part, this technological progress is all to the good… Nevertheless, I worry that this same impulse – making content easier and easier to see – could actually backfire with books. We will trade away understanding for perception. The words will shimmer on the screen, but the sentences will be quickly forgotten.”

Lehrer goes on to talk about a recent study that tested the way our brains work while reading. To put it as simply as I can, our brains have two distinct pathways for reading: the first, called the ventral route, involved recognizing letters, then words, and finally meaning in rapid succession; the second, called the dorsal stream, is used when we have to slow down and actually decipher the words, “perhaps because of an obscure word, or an awkward subclause, or bad handwriting.” We use the ventral route most times, but occasionally we have to use the dorsal stream when readings things such as James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake or Ulysses. Instead of glancing at the words and grabbing the meaning as we clip along, we have to stop and decipher and think about the words.

Lehrer’s point is that the whole goal of e-readers is to make the reading process easier, thus removing any need for the dorsal stream. “I worry that, before long, we’ll become so used to the mindless clarity of e-ink – to these screens that keep on getting better – that the technology will feedback onto the content, making us less willing to endure harder texts. We’ll forget what it’s like to flex those dorsal muscles, to consciously decipher a literate clause. And that would be a shame, because not every sentence should be easy to read.”

It’s a very interesting point, especially in our digital age. The common way to absorb information these days is through video. When we are skimming through a newspaper site, we are (or at least I am) more inclined to watch the video which summarizes the content than we are to read the article itself. If I were to post an entertaining video instead of this blog, people would be more inclined to give time to it. When it comes to reading books, then, we don’t want to take the time to think about the subject. We just want the information so we can get on with things. Think about: how many of you watched the movie version of Oliver Twist in high school instead of reading it?

The big question is, are we actually reading more? The Wall Street Journal published an article just last month about “The ABCs of E-Reading” and stated that a study of 1,200 e-reader owners found that 40% of them read more now that they have an e-reader. But does reading a digital copy of a book actually make the process that much easier? True, you don’t have to carry around the physical bulk of a paperback, but other than that, what’s the difference? In regards to the quantity of books we have on hand (the latest Kindle holds up to 3,500 books), do we read more than one, maybe two or three, books at a time?

How does reading on a Kindle change the experience compared to a hard copy? It doesn’t, really. It’s sleek, popular, and trendy, but for the average person (i.e., not a person who rides the subway and has to fit everything into an impossibly thin sidebag) the gains aren’t actually that much.

Yet Lehrer asserts:

“The future of books is digital… I imagine the physical version of books will soon assume a cultural place analogous to that of FM radio. Although the radio is always there (and isn’t that nice?), I really only use it when I’m stuck in a rental car and forgot my auxilliary input cord. The rest of the time I’m relying on shuffle and podcasts.”

The group Lehrer forgets is Children. This is my main thought about digital books. Who generally does the most reading? Children do, because they have the least amount of responsibilities. As adults get older, we have to fight for and make time for reading. When I used to come home after school as a kid, I’d plop down on my bed and read until supper time. Now I come home from work at supper time, and then after supper there’s dishes to do and bills to balance and other projects around the house, and maybe, if I push something off, I can spare twenty minutes to read. Adults still read, but it’s children that read the most.

For digital books to replace hard copies at large, they must reach the children. But this isn’t practical. It costs too much to buy an e-reader for a whole third grade class, let alone a whole nation of third-graders. In order for digital books to replace hard copies, they must become so inexpensive and ubiquitous that even the inner city below-poverty child can have access to one. I doubt this will ever happen.

If e-readers become the dominate form of publication, it will be at the expense of children. Of course adults with e-readers will read more; most adults don’t have time to go to the library and find new books to read. Having a device in hand to help them search while being out-and-about will certainly increase their amount of reading. And for that purpose, e-readers are a great tool. But if we take the rise in percentage to mean hard copies can become a thing of the past, children across the country will lose their chances to read.

And if children do not read, where will the world be?

(If you’re still reading this post, congratulations. Here’s to the written word, in whatever form.)

P.S. A further complication to this issue is sustainability. Let’s suppose that e-readers were distributed to all young children in school. What are the requirements for them to read books on an e-reader? First and foremost, they must be literate. Second, they must have access to electricity in order to charge their e-readers. Third, they must also have access to WiFi or some other computer (which would likewise need a connection to the internet) in order to download books onto their e-readers. In the U.S. these things are almost a given; you’d be hard pressed to find anyone without access to an outlet, computer, or form of internet connection. But these things are not so common as to be completely taken for granted, not in the U.S. and certainly not in the rest of the world.

In contrast, what requirements are there for printed books? Again, first is literacy. Second, a printed copy of the book. That is all. Literacy and the book. While electricity is often readily available, it is not always, and internet connectivity, particularly in places outside of the developed world, is even less available.

Therefore I say that regardless of the popularity and pervasiveness of e-readers, there will always be those who need printed books. To say “The future of books is digital” is to speak a death sentence for reading in any place besides modern, metropolitan areas. E-readers should not overtake the literary market, but should instead be set in their proper place alongside the many other tools of information consumption.

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2 thoughts on “The Future of Reading Shouldn’t Be Digital

  1. Carole

    Well stated! Good insight!

    Would you object to emailing this to me, so that I may print and send to a dear friend of mine who isn’t a e-reader …

  2. Jesse Koepke

    Jeepers, really? No, not at all! I hope it doesn’t like I don’t like e-readers, because they’re great tools. I’ve nearly 400 pages of a friend’s book all on my ipod touch. My objection is to the idea that the latest and greatest thing is a must-have for everyone, or that it will completely replace printed books. But yeah, email away!

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