Last week, Timothy Egan’s column in the New York Times noted an apparently surprising outcome of the presence of e-book readers and a ‘digital monolith’ like amazon.com, which should have resulted in the loss of the culture of reading, the loss of the culture of “ideas printed on dead trees’ to that of ‘the soulless digital monolith on Lake Union, with its 164 million customers.’
[T]he apocalypse already came and went, and look who’s standing. One technology, the e-book, the biggest new invention in reading since Gutenberg cranked out a Bible with movable type, changed the world — most likely for better. We have more books, more readers, a bigger audience for words, on pixels or paper.
Of course, it might be that the publishing industry as we know it is doomed as is the beloved independent bookstore. But are people reading more? The answer, it seems, is yes:
[T]he Association of American Publishers reported that overall revenues, and number of books sold in all formats, were up sizably in three years since 2008. Without e-books, the numbers would have been flat, or declined. One-fifth of all American adults reported reading an e-book in the past year….those digital consumers read far more books on average — about 24 a year — than the dead-tree consumers….e-book readers also buy lots of paper books…[they] “read more books in all formats”…By 2025, e-books will be 75 percent of total books sold.
But this ‘renaissance’ should not be surprising at all.
E-books represent a mode of distribution of the written word; they offer a mixed package of conveniences and entail the loss of many of the delightful physical affordances that printed books provide. As such they were never likely to appeal to all readers uniformly and thus unlikely to comprehensively destroy the culture of reading the printed-on-paper word. Readers read books on paper, via objects they can hold in their hand, for many more reasons than simply reading. Page-turning; marking in margins with a pencil (another physical affordance of another long-used artefact); these interactions have their own value and were never likely to be completely over-ridden by the e-book. They might lose their centrality for us as our material world changes and the nature of our embedding in it does. But it will take some doing. It will not be as facile a process as e-book-phobes might imagine.
And fears that e-books and their readers would destroy the culture of reading in general were even more overblown. Why anyone would imagine that reading would be displaced by a new mode of distribution that made it more convenient has always seemed mysterious to me. In a world bursting to the seams with information, with ever more knowledge to be disseminated, processed, and articulated (and I haven’t even touched on the expanding literary world yet!) why would reading ever lose its centrality?
Expressions of fears like those directed at e-books are not so much apprehensions of technology as much as they are expressions of distrust in humanity in general, in a lack of faith in its ability to absorb, and engage with, new modes of being in the world. For far too long, fearing that a particular relationship to the world might be mediated by a new mode of technology has been considered a fashionable expression of one’s commitment to humanistic concerns; I think instead that it covers up an alarmingly fragile assessment of the resilience of human beings. This does not mean, of course, that concerns about the lockdown of e-books by pernicious technologies like DRM are unfounded; those continue to remain urgent. But those critiques, are, I think, independent of the worry that reading books on e-book readers will impact reading negatively.
Note: I still do not own an e-book reader, and do not anticipate buying one in the near future though my ever-growing archive of reading material in PDF format is making me consider doing so. I’m open to recommendations for the best reader for PDF files; please leave these in the comments section if possible.