The Unsurprising Renaissance of Reading

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.’

But,

[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.

8 thoughts on “The Unsurprising Renaissance of Reading

  1. I wasn’t keen on e-book readers at all, but I got myself a Kindle last year, only to avoid staring at my fellow passengers during my 1.5 hr commute into Central London. It is one of the best things I have spent money on.

    I convert my pdfs into the mobi format using a software called Calibre. It is easier to read mobi files rather than pdfs on Kindle because display features like font size etc. are more flexible.

    If you don’t mind a product closely linked to a particular store (you can buy from other e-book stores too, but it’s just easier to buy these from Amazon), then I would say go for a Kindle. It is at par with any of the more expensive readers like Sony, Nook etc..or at least used to be when I did my research. Starting at $79, I think it is a steal :).

    I assume here that you are not looking for iPad like devices, with backlit screens, but something which uses e-ink.

  2. Megha,

    Thanks for the comment. If I can find a way to painlessly convert my .pdf files into .mobi (i.e., en masse), I will seriously consider a Kindle.

    And yes, I’m not looking for iPad like devices.

    Cheers,
    Samir

  3. The iPad-like devices are excellent for PDFs, for better or for worse. Generally, I’ve had very poor experiences doing .pdf conversions with calibre for use on the kindle, and have been much happier (for pdfs) since giving up and switching to an Android tablet for reading those.

    (For materials you can get in a good format, the Kindle is far superior to the tablet.)

      1. I’ve been reading on and off ever since I saw you had a new book out (congrats on that, by the way, sad I wasn’t able to make it to the Miami conference). I have a Samsung 10.1 that I’m fairly happy with, though I’m not sure I can recommend it to non-free-software bigots (the pricing is essentially the same as the iPad and the software quality and diversity is much higher on iOS.)

      2. Luis,

        Thanks. The Miami conference was indeed fun; so much work lies ahead there. Thanks too, for the Samsung pointer – I’ll check it out.

  4. It’s interesting that some people think an increase in e-book sales equals the destruction of the reading culture. My personal theory is that e-reader anxiety is driven by the upper middle class liberal intellectual’s distaste for markets, profits, and big business. (I’m one of these intellectuals by the way.) When good books were a barely profitable niche item sold by barely profitable niche stores, then the aesthetics of the business were right. Now that it’s Amazon, the new Barnes & Noble / Microsoft partnership, and Apple … reading looks less like an occupation suitable for a person of distinction and more like participation in commerce. One upside of the e-reader medium seems to be that when books are cheaper because they are e-books, people buy and read more of them. Another upside is that the economic barriers to publication have been reduced to near zero. Anyone with a computer can publish an e-book through Amazon, B&N, and other platforms. Now this means that there is a WHOLE lot more crap out there than before. But it also means that many voices which could not get through the gate keepers of traditional publishing now have a chance to be heard. It’s a new world, all over again. I’m excited.

    1. Peter

      Nice insight. Here’s a small confession: when I go to bookstores and see crowds thronging the shelves, buying books by the dozen, I do feel a little less special 🙂

      The point about entry barriers being lowered is also interesting – yes, indeed, way more utter crap is being published, but good God, anything that would diminish the powers of the traditional gatekeepers is to be praised. The flip side of letting in selectively is also selective exclusion. Bring it on I say – and lets trust readers to sort it out. We might look for other guides in the future, but we’ll solve that problem when we get to it. (I presume that’s what our ‘like’ buttons are trying to do for us!)

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