Before the explosion of the internet, reading seemed to be on the decline. People were increasingly turning to movies and television to sate their entertainment interests. Interpersonal communication was largely carried out via telephone or in person (though occasionally allowing for the charmingly idiosyncratic letter).
But thanks to email, texting and Oprah’s book club, reading staged a comeback. And now, everyone reads – for information, for pleasure, for work, for everything. Reading is, once again, essential to existence.
Still, how we read is evolving. eReaders, computers and audio books are transforming the experience as technological advances demand different types of interaction.
Reading the internet is a lot like reading a newspaper – though where a newspaper required a compelling lead, the internet needs to hook the reader in mere instants with a headline or a compelling image.
Internet reading is fragmented and frenetic. Our consciousness takes in wide swaths of information – colors, pictures, banner ads, news feeds and the like – leading to a form of cultural ADD.
eBooks have become a battleground for lovers of literature. Some refuse to believe a computer can deliver a visceral experience equal to that of a physical book.
eBooks are too slick, too impersonal. They don’t smell like books should. And yet, an eBook can contain more stories than most people will read in a lifetime.
eBooks can be used anywhere at any time – a personal, transportable library. And the availability of free ebooks makes an eReader economical as well as efficient.
They are also impressively democratic. Due to the infinite potential of digital copies, it is unlikely that any government would be able to crush discourse by burning them, Fahrenheit 451-style.
Is listening to an audio book “cheating”? Though the same dramatic information is conveyed, audiobooks prove a vastly altered sensory experience.
To my mind, one medium isn’t less valid than the other, and yet with an audio book, I always feel compelled to note that while I “know” the story and have listened to every word, I haven’t “read” it.
Many are ready to sound the death knell of the publishing industry. Physical books are far more expensive to manufacture, ship and market than their digital counterparts.
However, it would be a great tragedy if they disappeared altogether. The experience of a book is often different than the information or story contained therein.
They are tactile and contemplative, and demand attention and imagination – books refuse to do the heavy lifting for you. In this way, they say as much about the reader as what is being read – offering infinite interpretations and internal imagery.
The best progress is less about evolution than proliferation. In plain speak: Options. Luckily, we live in an era where we can choose the method of information delivery, tailoring it to our needs and inclinations. Man will always write – the compulsion to communicate stories is as old as cavemen. In today’s Brave New World, however, readers control how they’re delivered.