A new future for reading?

By Tina Hovekamp, Library

Last week I attended a webinar on new technology gadgets.  The main emphasis of the talk was on the new iPad (of course!) and secondarily on other tablets or e-readers available out there.  As a matter of fact, it looks like the whole web has been consumed with discussion about the iPad device since its launching a few weeks ago.  People every day now have been arguing on the plus and minuses of this new gadget and how it compares to other tablets/e-readers or even traditional books.  The jury is still out for me as I tend to be more skeptical about every new piece of electronic device that seems to pop up daily and asks for attention from our pocket.  Still, I have to admit, this time I was the first to propose that we buy one of these babies for the library so I can finally get the e-reader experience I have been avoiding since Kindle’s last splash (our iPad is arriving in the beginning of May and I can’t wait to play with it!).  Are you interested in a quick read of the pros and cons people are arguing about in relation to the iPad? Click here  for a summary page a colleague recommended.

Looking at the world of digitization and electronic repackaging, books seem to be the ones most resilient to change so far. Despite the Kindles, iPhones, Sony Readers, and even the growing power of Google’s Book Search engine, people for the time being seem to still like to curl up with a book rather than a machine when it comes to real reading. Yet, the e-book business is growing impatient with its market, pushing harder and harder every year to expand its reach, currently putting most of its bets mainly on the younger generation of ‘screenagers’ to replace today’s book core buyers (middle-aged women…).  Well, perhaps they know something.  Statistics published by the International Digital Publishing Forum show that the U.S. trade retail eBook sales are going steadily up especially within the last few years despite a recession that continues to rage.  True, that’s just a tiny slice of the billions in overall book sales (barely 1 percent of books sold in the United States are electronic), but still impressive given the bad economy, which hit especially hard the publishing industry.

But do these trends also reflect changes in our reading habits, too?  In January 2009 a new study from NEA reported:

“For the first time in more than 25 years, American adults are reading more literature, according to a new study by the National Endowment for the Arts. Reading on the Rise documents a definitive increase in rates and numbers of American adults who read literature, with the biggest increases among young adults, ages 18-24. This new growth reverses two decades of downward trends cited previously in NEA reports such as Reading at Risk and To Read or Not To Read.”

Is this a surprise to you?  Read on…

  • Fiction (novels and short stories) accounts for the new growth in adult literary readers.
  • Reading poetry and drama continues to decline, especially poetry-reading among women.
  • Online readers also report reading books. Eighty-four percent of adults who read literature (fiction, poetry, or drama) on or downloaded from the Internet also read books, whether print or online.
  • Nearly 15 percent of all U.S. adults read literature online in 2008.

Click here to see the complete report of this study.

So, what does this say for the future of books and reading habits?  Beyond the debate about the advantages or disadvantages of yet another new device, one thing may be certain; technology is already changing the way people read, especially the way those young adults, ages 18-24, read.  In his post, Bob Stein of the Institute for the Future of the Book contemplates the possibility of yet another future in which novels will no longer be the dominant form of fiction but will be replaced by something that looks more like the multiplayer online game “World of Warcraft”:

“It’s not a big leap to think of the person who developed the game as an author whose art is conceiving, designing and building a virtual world in which players (readers) don’t merely watch or read the narrative [but actually contribute to it]”.

In other words, according to Stein’s vision, digital fiction will be a completely different media which could include video, sound, and readers’ comments.  Hmmm…how do you like that?  Too futuristic?  Or, maybe you better start thinking about your next gadget….

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One Response to A new future for reading?

  1. Carol Elwood says:

    One advantage I forsee, if textbooks become available on e-readers: students can save their backs the terrible burden I see, from backpacks threatening to pull them over backwards.

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