From the Tech Desk
Do eBooks Cause Us to Read Less?
There are many ways in which technology has improved our lives over the past 10 years. From streamlining communication to making entertainment more conveniently accessible, the advents of social media, Apple's iDevice line, and e-readers have completely changed the way most of us interact with the world. But have all of those changes been positive? Specifically, are e-readers preserving the reading experience in a meaningful and effective way? Or do e-readers actually lead us to read less than we used to in the days of good old-fashioned physical copies?
Literary technologist and Pressbooks.com founder Hugh McGuire perhaps put it best this past April, in a blog post for Medium. The post, titled "Why can't we read anymore? Or, can books save us from what digital does to our brains," started with a jarring admission that you wouldn't expect to hear from anyone in the publishing industry.
"Last year, I read four books," McGuire wrote. "I’ve been finding it harder and harder to concentrate on words, sentences, paragraphs. Let alone chapters."
To be fair, McGuire didn't place the blame completely on eBooks. On the contrary, the Pressbooks founder claimed that, on most nights in 2014, he would try to read before going to bed, and both eBooks and physical print books were part of the habit. However, his problem was something that has become the norm in the iPhone generation: distraction.
"I just needed a little something else," McGuire said. "Something to tide me over. Something to scratch that little itch at the back of my mind—just a quick look at email on my iPhone; to write, and erase, a response to a funny Tweet from William Gibson; to find, an follow, a link to a good, really good article in the New Yorker…"
McGuire's tangent goes on, about the things that tend to pull him away from his reading—even in the middle of a paragraph or chapter. The specifics of the distractions aren't important. Rather, it's the fact that these distractions have become more prevalent than ever before. Email, social media, the latest YouTube craze, recently posted articles from your favorite bloggers or news sources: these are just a few of the things that are just a finger's swipe away in this modern world, and all of them stand to take away from the immersion and focus that reading a full-length novel requires.
Of course, many of these distractions have always been there—at least in some form or another. All the way back in September of 1991, NYU journalism professor Mitchell Stephens wrote a piece boldly entitled "The Death of Reading" for the Los Angeles Times. In it, he spoke of a number of places where he would have previously expected to see people reading: in the doctor's office waiting room, perhaps, or on an airplane. But instead of books, more and more Stephens reported that he was seeing kids playing Game Boys, teenagers listening to tape players, and adults passively focusing on TV or movie screens.
Fast-forward to today, and while the technology has changed, the core sentiment—that fewer and fewer people are choosing to read books—is still the same. Stephens' article seems to have been prophetic in that sense, and while reading might not have died in the 24 years that have elapsed since his piece, it has certainly taken ill. With so many flashier technological distractions at our fingertips, what attraction does reading books and actually using our imaginations hold?
The publishing industry obviously needed to figure out a way to move the book medium into the 21st century, but are eBooks the solution to what Mitchell Stephens proclaimed "The Death of Reading"? It doesn't seem like it. How can we expect technology to fix a problem that, at its core, is caused by technology? How can we ask readers to tune out distractions when many of them are now reading on tablets—devices that bring those distractions closer and make them more accessible than ever before? Most would even argue that reading a book on a tablet or e-reading device is less satisfying than thumbing through a physical copy, simply because watching a progress bar at the bottom of the screen doesn't afford the sense of accomplishment that getting further and further into a thick print book does.
There are, of course, still benefits to eBooks. Independent publishers and self-published authors love the format for how it simplifies the conundrum of reaching readers, and readers in turn benefit from the convenience and accessibility that digital books afford. But do the benefits of digital books outweigh the drawbacks? Is it okay to shoot for convenience and reduced production costs if there are numerous studies and top publications suggesting that readers digest information more fully (and remember it more reliably) when reading print versus digital. And if people are actually reading less with eBooks at their fingertips, is there really a benefit to the convenience of digital publishing in the first place?
Craig Manning is currently studying English and Music at Western Michigan University. In addition to writing for IndependentPublisher.com, he maintains a pair of entertainment blogs, interns at the Traverse City Business News, and writes for Rockfreaks.net and his college newspaper. He welcomes comments or questions concerning his articles via email, at firstname.lastname@example.org.