The Evolution Of Reading
January 1, 2010
We’re reading a lot about reading these days–so, probably, are you. There’s an article once a week, it seems, in every major newspaper about the demise of the publishing industry alongside articles detailing the rise of e-books and “Twitter” books and vooks. We’ve been reading, ironically, about the death of reading itself as predicted, for a while now, by one media guru or another. We then triumphantly snag responding statements by equally incorporated gurus who see reading on the rise. They can’t both be correct, can they?
There are academic studies revealing the changing reading habits of young and old alike–we’re reading more about less (think Facebook’s innumerable posts about “what I’m doing this minute.” or Twittering, to no one in particular, about the new flavor of ice cream this week, or–and this makes my hair hurt it’s so staggeringly mindless–the minute-by-minute updates on Jon and Kate, whoever they are. And we’re reading less about more–the narrowing U.S. media coverage of world events, not to mention the lack of investigative journalism in election coverage. But I digress. There is change in the air; there’s no denying it. People are reading more, the hopefuls say. But is what they’re reading more of, really of any use, the skeptics ask.
As Librarians, we definitely recognize a drop off in patronage by the 11-24 year-old crowd. It’s a shame really, because there are so many more really good Young Adult books being written now than ever before, yet they mainly languish on the shelf. One hopes that as this group of relative non-readers matures, they too will see the benefits of reading both literature and non-fiction. There are glimmers that this is actually happening. The 25-30 year-olds who eschewed reading, unless class assignments required it, were also the vanguard of Gameboy players back in the day. They grew up focusing their vision on a small screen. It is no surprise then, that as they now turn to reading for recreation, they will again be the vanguard of new reading technologies–books on cellphones and e-readers like the Kindle or Nook. In Europe and Asia, the younger set have been listening to audiobooks in huge numbers for almost a decade now on iPods and similar devices. Not so much in the U.S. though. That’s OK; they love Jerry Lewis, kidney pie and Sumo wrestling too, so differences are to be expected. Our youth seem to have missed the audiobook step and moved directly to the digital screen for books. Huzzah we shout, anticipating that laudable return to recreational reading, but we shout it more quietly now for fear of losing precious ground.
In the end, does the format really matter if the content is the same? We say no. Whatever floats your boat. It makes no more difference how you read than the choice of reading in a chair vs. in bed. Great! So go get a Kindle if you want to, download books to your mobile phone if that’s your choice; go listen to an audiobook if that’s your preference–sometimes they’re even better than the book, for example- the audio version of The Help. But here’s the rub: eventually, the content will change to fit the format. It’s just part of the evolutionary process which includes the reality of the fittest publishers surviving in the economic jungle. Reading isn’t dead, but it is having to compete for attention in a much larger circus than before. So why not let it trot out a few new tricks to keep us amused and interested? That being said, let us not forsake standards of quality in what is written –and read, nor delude ourselves when we lower or abandon those standards altogether, if only, hopefully, briefly.