How do we really “use” books, anyway?

Steven Johnson’s article on the changes digital readers may bring to the book world in the Wall Street Journal sparked another interesting round of the ongoing bookworld meta-conversation (via Twitter) the other day: what does the digital realm mean for books and bookstores?

Johnson seems most impressed at the ease by which the (non-digital) reader can go from one book to another (inspired either by references therein or sheer boredom) on a digital reader, paying a little more each time. He goes on to speculate about readers paying for books by the chapter and this changing the way writers handle plot development and pacing to hold readers’ attention all the way through a book. But, I was most struck by the assumptions about how people read (or don’t read) now.

Don’t serious readers (defined as anyone who reads more than simply the “must-read” book of the year) already drop one book for another in mid-chapter if boredom or burning curiosity take hold? Can’t we already satisfy our craving for (near) instant gratification by ordering online or picking up the phone? Isn’t the point (conscious or not) of collecting your books in one place, of hanging onto everything you’ve ever read (even those ancient college textbooks you have in a box in the attic) and creating elaborate (or not so-) systems of organizing your books intended to facilitate that exact skipping from one text to another, the hunting down of obscure references, the application of a palate-cleansing chaser of short fiction to wash the taste of a badly written biography away? In short, don’t we already mix and remix our reading in exactly the way that Johnson seems to think ereaders newly facilitate?

Yes, perhaps they make it easier (as in faster — getting up off the couch and walking across the room is such a chore) to switch between books, and easier for everyone involved to have a financial stake in that switch (take that pesky used bookstores!), but I don’t know that this is fundamentally any different to how serious readers use books right now. Yes, there are some serious profits to be made during the adoption phase of ereaders, but surely those sales will soon slow and then plateau just like music and DVD sales did after the introduction of their various new technologies. (For example, everyone started buying DVD players and many bought DVD copies of movies they already owned in VHS format, creating high sales numbers that simply could not be sustained once those serious movie buffs had completed their library upgrade.) Look at Borders’ financial reports for the last five or six years, just about every one blames their declining financial performance on “softness” in the music and DVD categories. Go back ten years and they were praising those categories as their major growth centers.

So while the article is worth reading and thinking about, and while there are definitely serious concerns that ebooks are not going to benefit the current champions of serious reading — the bookstores — I really question the assumption that digital readers will change the way serious readers utilize books and the knowledge they contain. Will the convenience of theoretically carrying thousands of books around on your phone turn more people into serious readers? Did the introduction of the DVD turn more people into serious movie buffs?

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1 comment

  1. Drew Goodman’s avatar

    Rich, I agree with you on the idea that we already create our own book “mashups” in the physical world and the ereader does not fundamentally change this. Ereaders are not iTunes and iPods- we don’t mix chapters from multiple authors to create an entirely new book like we do by creating playlists. I have Kindle for the iPhone and have recently spent time playing with a Kindle 2, and interestingly enough, even on these ereaders, reading is a linear process (particularly with novels) in which we start at point A, cross through point B in order to get to point C.

    I think the point that Johnson completely misses is not how we will read (because, essentially, the fundamentals of reading don’t change), or where we read (we can read in as many places with a book as an ereader), or even with whom we read (if reading can even remotely be considered a social process). The digital world is providing new ways in which we DECIDE what we will read and then how we ACQUIRE the reading material. He briefly mentions book blogging, but then quickly returns to his own flawed thesis.

    Blogging, and other forms of social media, are changing the ways in which we decide what to read and then how we acquire the book. Then the question becomes, what is the role of the book blogger in the digital world; influencer, reviewer, bookseller or a combination of all three? Will book blogging, Twitter and other social media change the way in which books are sold? Is the book blogger the 21st century bookseller, and what role does the blogger who is “independent” from a bookstore, influence the future of bookselling in brick and mortar stores?

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