Book Ends

Today I read a piece by David Nagel at Campus Technology who suggests users of iPads and other tablets are increasingly turning to digital texts. Nagel writes, “[i]n fact, according to research released this week, time spent reading texts in digital formats now just about equals the time spent on paper-based texts.” He continues:

According to the report, released by market research firm Gartner, a full 94 percent of iPad users and users of other tablet devices either prefer reading digital texts (52 percent) or find them as readable as printed texts (42 percent).

I find this interesting on two fronts. First, I am an iPad user, but I can’t say I prefer reading digital texts or that I find them as readable as printed texts. Certainly I love reading mysteries, blogs, newspapers and popular fiction on my iPad, and I am certainly accessing more digital texts. However, as far as dense, complex texts, well, I often print those in order to read them. Perhaps as I become more accustomed to using my iPad–I’ve only had it since December and haven’t had time to do much more with it than email and games–I will become more comfortable reading more complex digital texts. Or, perhaps not. As Nagel points out, the findings of the “Survey Analysis: Consumer Digital Reading Preferences Reveal the Exaggerated Death of Paper reveal that

In terms of gender, men typically reported screen reading easier than women, but both sexes said screen reading was generally the same or harder than reading printed text.

Additionally the report note that “those who had the least acceptance of reading on-screen were 40- to 54-year-olds.” Well, there you go. That’s my demographic. So perhaps I won’t become accustomed to digital texts after all.

The second reason I find this interesting is that I’ve been reading about the demise of the book for well over a decade now, and until quite recently I’d thought it all added up to a bunch of hooey. However, when I consider the number of small book stores going under, Amazon’s July 2010 report that its sales of e-books surpassed those of hardbacks and its January 2011 report that sales of e-books had surpassed the sale of paperbacks, the fact that Barnes and Noble filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in March 2011, the closings of so many public libraries, and the number of University Presses that are just hanging on, well, the demise of the book looks like a real possibility. And that saddens me.

As I look at all my beloved books crammed onto my shelves, I wonder what academics’ offices will look like in another 10, 20, or 30 years. Will there be piles of books and issues of journals yellowed with age? Or, will bookshelves go the way of the typewriter and office space shrink to the size of  a person and an e-reader or tablet? And why not? Certainly iPads and e-readers are more convenient than an over-weight backpack, and purchasing via Amazon, iTunes, the App store and whatever other virtual stores beats the hell outta the long lines at the college book store. Commuters are ditching their laptops for smartphones, iPads, and other tablets and e-readers, and public and university libraries are turning more and more to digital texts. Perhaps someday soon we’ll all have pocket-sized devices from which we can access the world, like Jean luc Picard and Commander Data. And newer technologies that are cheaper, lighter and have longer and longer lasting batteries or are some day powered by the sun make this a real possibility.

In some ways, I hope I’m not around when this happens. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love geeking out and am enamored of new technologies. But I so love scanning my shelves for my beat-up copy of The House of Seven Gables and finding old note cards and underlined passages in Aristotle’s Rhetoric. I can remember the color of a book’s cover and find it on my shelves even when the title escapes me. I like the feel and smell of a book, even the old dusty ones from grad school that still reek a bit of mold from the house near the lake I lived in for a year or so. Our house is full of overstuffed bookshelves; I can’t imagine living in a house without them. I recently did a home office make over, and in the process went through my books, weeding out a few I decided I didn’t need to hang onto. Ends up those were mostly textbooks. At one point, I had a few boxes ready to go to the used bookstore, but I put back at least a few boxes full. Even though I haven’t read Dickens, or Elliot or James in years, I just couldn’t part with them.

So, I’ll hang onto my books and buy new ones, but I’ll also download and read e-books and digital texts on my iPad, and perhaps someday the world will come to think of people like me as representative of the transitional period between the paper, binding, and ink eras and the rise of digital texts. I just hope that time isn’t near.

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4 Responses to Book Ends

  1. Doc says:

    A thoughtful post, and a sad one. I wonder why the over-54 bracket is more willing than the next younger cohort to embrace digital texts. Or maybe the pollster didn’t bother to ask us.

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