Is technology killing books and reading?

A fairly interesting, if somewhat confused in places, piece in The Guardian a few days ago from the author Philip Hensher.

He starts by pointing out the rather glorious way that slightly niche publishing projects can get off the ground thanks to crowd funding websites such as Kickstarter, and also the way in which it’s now possible to buy and download electronic versions of a writer’s entire output for a couple of quid thanks to the ebook stores.

So far so sensible, but Hensher then goes on:

Ruth Rendell was commenting on one of the beneficiaries of the “long tail”, a once forgotten novel by John Williams, Stoner. Rendell suggested that it has become a huge success in 2013, compared with its small impact on publication in 1965, precisely because it celebrates the power of reading and the value of literature. In 1965 that was taken for granted. Now, Rendell suggested, reading has become a specialist activity, and Stoner is more “needful”.

He goes on to suggest a literary equivalent of the doctor’s recommendation of five-a-day, replacing fruit and veg with books – and hopefully a slightly longer timeframe.

I personally find that there are some works that I am perfectly happy to read on an electronic device, whether a Kindle e-reader or the app on my iPad (mini – the regular sized iPads are far to cumbersome to work well as a reading device).

There are other books, however, which I need to be on paper in front of me. I’ve recently been reading the letters of DH Lawrence – which I heartily recommend – and it would be a far poorer experience were I to be reading them on a screen rather than being able to thumb through the pages.

The sheer accessibility of literature now, thanks to the internet and resources such as Project Gutenberg, make it a fantastic time to be a reader. I suspect it is also a great time to be a writer, as the ebook market allows those authors who might never have got a book deal to find readers and perhaps make a living from their words.

As to whether the distractions of the internet are stopping people from reading… well, I dunno. I have a sneaking suspicion that those who do not want to read have always found something else that they would rather do; and those who love books will always find the time for them, no matter what is happening elsewhere, virtually or otherwise.

2 thoughts on “Is technology killing books and reading?”

  1. I’ve been reading more lately than I have done in years, mostly due to the flexibility of the kindle. As a former literature student, and as a long term academic, I never thought a digital reader would attract me, but I have found it a significantly more efficient and pleasant experience than I’d anticipated. Far from reducing my concentration, the technologies have actually broadened the score and increased the opportunities of reading.

    I suspect the greatest critics of technologies as a medium for learning and engagement are more frustrated by the prospect of changing their own behaviours than adequately informed about those who have already shifted their practices.

  2. Dave,
    I do not think technology is killing reading so much as changing the way we read. Most blogs are less than 1500 words. The format does not allow for detailed discussions of complex nuanced arguments. It is pretty much claim, evidence, and summary.

    This assumes, of course, that most of the blogs are well written or written at a quality that allow people to read them. Too often, myself included, people write for themselves rather than their audience.

    At the same time, to paraphrase Bacon said, some blogs are to be skimmed, some tasted, and others to be digested whole. I fear that reading is becoming skimming and we assume that awareness is the same as knowledge let alone wisdom.

    The stories can all be condensed but who would say Moby Dick or The Old Man and the Sea are just fishing stories? The story themselves are a journey. Therein we see the problem. Most people, but not all, do not want to take the journey. We watch a lot of TV in part to make the journey for us.

    I fear the follow on effect is that we lose the power of abstract thought so that we focus on a specific type of thinking, calculative or simply transactional. We can see this in websites for children the purport to helpt them understand three dimensioanl space. However, this simply provides someone else’s conception of the three dimensional space and how it is to be understood rather than the child or student undertaking the journey by themselves.

    Taking the lift to the top of the mountain for the view, allows the view, but the climb to the top, to see that view gives a different understnading and appreciation. Dwarfs on the shoulders of giants are still dwarfs to paraphrase Newton referring to an earlier thinker.

    This is not to say that reading has stopped, but that a rediscovery of books makes one appreciate technology and what is being demanded and lost by reading on the internet rather than reading a book.

    Thanks for a stimulating post.


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