E-Books and the Culture of Reading

A few days ago, I ended up in an interesting conversation with several colleagues about the likely impact of e-books on our work as teachers of writing and literature. As often happens in groups like this, the discussion turned to the future of print books in the age of technology, and a typically funereal note was struck. But I tried to argue for a bit of optimism on multiple fronts. Are e-readers here to stay? Maybe. Are print books dead? Maybe not.

There are some pretty clear parallels between the “death of the print book” and its birth. The advent of the printing press did not change the writing culture of Europe overnight. Decades passed while presses were built and publishing concerns established, but it took even longer to convince the entire reading population that manuscripts (with their artistry, craft, marginalia, durability, and colorful illuminations) were not the superior choice. New technology does not exist in a vacuum. Its utility and possibility is not fully realized until other technologies, educational models, and mindsets are created or adjusted to make fuller use of it. Books became popular over the course of multiple lifetimes, as more people became accustomed to and desirous of the qualities of print books (relatively low cost of production, accessibility, ease of ownership, faster production time, etc.), and more ink-and-parchment users either came to prefer these qualities as well or died off.  Manuscripts became collectors’ curiosities and eventually historians’ prizes, but only after enjoying a long and slow slide into obsolescence. Sentimentality, of course, played a role in that slowness–just as sentimentality is part of what fuels the hue and cry over the death of the book. Will print books, like their manuscript forebears, be reduced to a novelty item?

A new invention and an old one can coexist for a long time. The telephone was patented in 1876, yet the last telegraph to a sitting president (from a naval vessel) was sent in 1999. From the presidencies of Rutherford B. Hayes (whose phone number, incidentally, was “1”) to Bill Clinton, these two technologies existed side by side, one gradually taking the place of the other. New technology replaces an older form when, and only when, a sufficient majority of people decide that the advantages and limitations of the new technology are preferable to those of the older type. It takes a while, therefore, to replace a technology that works, and it would be hard to argue that any technological innovation of the second millennium AD was more culturally pervasive and universally successful than the printing press. (Gunpowder was invented in the first millennium, so I can sidestep the cynical comparison to guns on a technicality). Print books will be around until a new technology, which may or may not look anything like the current crop of e-readers, can convince enough people of its superior utility in comparison to bound paper and ink.

In the meantime, e-readers and “traditional” texts may turn out to interact in ways we’re not fully expecting. Last semester, I was bloviating at a class about the advantage of a physically small book which I’d assigned for class, a copy of which I keep in a coat pocket. “I can get a bit of reading done even while waiting on a line or between classes,” I pointed out, suggesting that they might do the same. A student in the front row held up his iPhone, on which, he explained, he had a copy of the same book–as well as fifty others (and yes, I’d already known that this was possible). After class, he told me that he reads on both an e-reader and his phone. When he’s done with a book, he decides whether he likes it enough to buy a paper copy, which he then can reread and write in if he chooses. My own shelves groan under the weight of books I read once, was indifferent to, and stuck back in place. My student’s private library, on the other hand, is made up entirely of books he’s already vetted and approved through their cheaper, electronically accessible forms.

Are the days of print books numbered? Maybe–but that number is probably a lot higher than many people think.

That said, the more disposable forms of writing, including nearly all periodicals, should look to e-readers as their best hope for the future. I don’t have an e-reader at present, but I’m thinking about getting one–mainly so that I can start accessing my subscriptions to newspapers, journals, and magazines when I’m traveling, stuck in a car with a sleeping baby, or just eating lunch somewhere without my laptop handy.

I probably won’t start reading books on a machine anytime soon, though–I like paper, the ability to move around in the text, my occasional marginal writing, my ownership of a physical text. Besides, I’m comfortable with one foot in the past and one in the present…after all, it’s what I do for a living.


Filed under History, Teaching, Technology

6 responses to “E-Books and the Culture of Reading

  1. Interesting post, professor. I came across this app http://getpocket.com which allows you to “mark” an article for later and it puts it in your “pocket” to be queued for later. This app is for windows, mac, all browsers, android, and iPhone.

    • jpsexton

      This sounds like a useful gadget for my students–I don’t yet have any app-friendly technology, so I’ll have to stick to the old-fashioned “print out lots of articles and keep them in heaps on my desk” method for now…

  2. magistranabbefeld

    I read this http://mashable.com/2013/01/22/library-use-study-pew/
    today and thought of your post. People love new technologies but don’t want to give up the old entirely.

    • jpsexton

      Some of this resistance is generational, but not all of it. There’s going to be some reluctance to move our experience of reading and writing entirely onto electronic media, for many of the same reasons we still print copies of pictures we want to “keep.”

      There’s also eyestrain to consider. My experience with e-readers is very limited so far, but to my eyes they still have a lot more in common with my laptop screen than my copy of the Riverside Chaucer…

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