Today, Jeff Bezos announced e-books are outselling hardcovers at Amazon. What does the success of e-books mean for reading? I’ve been talking to people who read their Kindles or iPads on train rides or plane flights — and this is by no means a scientific sample — and most express surprise at how much they enjoy reading on the devices. This surprise is usually accompanied by a demonstration, showing me what they’re reading, how easy it is to turn the pages. Most cite the convenience of carrying multiple books or magazines in a lightweight device as a major benefit. For most of the families I’ve spoken with, the kids still seem to prefer books which, surprises their parents.
As Sellen and Harper report in The Myth of the Paperless Office, printed books offer affordances that digital devices do not. Mainly, with paper, readers can see where they’re at when they’re reading, in particular where they’ve been and how far they have to go until the end. They can hold their place on a page or within a book, spread out texts on a desk, and better find a spot in a text to which they’d like to return.
That said, e-readers offer their own affordances. Readers can, if they wish, carry their entire library with them (assuming the books are available digitally). They can search for a specific term, rather than thumb through an entire book. Plus, they can download a book instantaneously rather than waiting for it to arrive, or traveling somewhere to purchase/borrow it. Mostly, these arguments point to ease of access and convenience of locating specific materials, but what do these benefits have to do with reading? Do people read more because they can more easily access texts? I think the answer may be ‘yes,’ but the depth of their reading and length of attentional focus is another matter.
I wonder what we lose and gain as we transition toward a more digital life.