Back in 1994 Sven Birkerts wrote The Gutenberg Elegies, which argued the modern life is changing the way we read. Think about it–in 1994, the internet was all text based and most of us who were around them were just discovering it. Cell phones were these primitive brick-like contraptions with an antenna you pulled out that you only used to make phone calls. We bought or rented videos, listened to books on either cassettes or CDs, and watched TV either over the air or on cable.
There have been scores of articles since, including a more recent one touting a new book by Birkerts, still contending that our technology disrupts our reading, and our writing. At least from the side of reading and engaging with books, I suspect the issue is a bit more complicated. A recent discussion at my Bob on Books Facebook page suggests that the advent of various digital technologies have had both benefits and downsides.
A regular commenter said various digital technologies have tripled her reading! A number of people have found e-readers have facilitated their reading. One person, whose husband is connected with the military, found her e-reader helped them meet weight restrictions on their moves. They are also convenient for reading while traveling (another time where trimming weight makes sense). Many use free library downloads to save costs. E-readers make digital text searches easier for research purposes. Some find reading easier on an e-reader, including a person with eye problems, for whom an e-reader is “a real blessing.” Another person, however, thought their e-reader was messing with their eyes, and some still prefer real books to e-readers. However, one person reading an 800 page book wished it were on her e-reader because of the weight of the book!
Audiobooks are also a favorite for a number, particularly because these make it possible to take in a book while engaged in other activities. One artist friend finds listening to an audiobook helps him focus on his work. In another discussion, a number linked audiobooks and exercise. Nothing wrong with getting physically and mentally fit! Some of us (myself included) exercise while reading on our e-readers.
One of the other ways technology aids readers is in searching for books. Project Gutenberg offers 58,000 e-books for free download. Library websites facilitate searches for books, reserves, and downloads of e-books and audiobooks. The energy savings of not having to physically go to the library in many cases is not to be overlooked. It is now possible to link a local library or bookstore to Goodreads under the “Get a copy” function.
TVs and smartphones can be a problem. One person observed their reading time go way down when they discovered streaming services on TV. One person decided to quit television. Others find social media like Facebook a distraction. They are reading, but…. This can be a problem when you use a reading app on your phone, but get distracted by others apps, particularly if you have notifications turned on for any apps. But there is a problem that once the phone is on, it is easy in a moment of boredom or distraction to check Facebook…or Twitter…or even Goodreads. Fifteen minutes later you remember you were reading. Some admitted that addiction to their phones is a problem that is cutting into their time.
Perhaps for these reasons, or just the love of the feel of a physical book, there are a number who still like to turn the pages, and my observation is that they turn quite a number of pages from the books they report on reading! Unless one is listening to an audiobook, I suspect most of us probably need to put mental or even physical distance between our e-book or physical book and our phone. Dedicated e-readers on which you can only read can be helpful here. Perhaps it can be healthy to have times of the day where we don’t have our phones with us, and reading times may be one of them.
None of this explores a deeper question, and that is whether we engage in the same way a physical book, an e-book and an audiobook. My hunch is that we do not, but we still may attain the same end, whether it is simply diversion, or illumination. I wonder if the issue is not what I’m reading but how well I am paying attention, and how actively I am thinking about what I’m reading. However, I would maintain that reading, in any of these forms is better than not reading, and if any encourage those who might not otherwise read to plunge into a book, that’s a good thing.