I try not to predict the future, as I’m not very good at it, but I think it’s safe to say that I will get an e-reader in 2011 — and so will everyone else.
Why everyone else? Because, when it comes to technology, I am the zeitgeist, the tipping point, the consummate average adopter. I went online in 1994, bought my first cell phone in 2000, started blogging in 2004, and joined Facebook and Twitter in 2008, which puts me on the steep upward slope of the number-of-users bell curve in every case (a little early on Twitter, but that’s only because I have cool friends).
Why an e-reader? Because that’s clearly where text is going (witness the just-announced e-reader for kids and New York Times e-book bestseller list), and where text goes, I go. Why 2011? Because we’re clearly not there yet (witness this year’s literary gift choices and the numbers that don’t quite justify the hype in articles like this one), but we’ll certainly be there soon (as witnessed not only by the hype, but by the fact that my mother-in-law and uncle got Kindles this year — and my uncle doesn’t even have email).
How do I feel about this? Pretty much fine. My middle-aged eyes are going, making the idea of adjustable print a boon; newspapers and magazines will be all online all the time before we know it; and a slim device will be an asset for travel, reading on the elliptical, and the like. If I can just ensure that my device supports library books, I’ll be good to go.
As I contemplate this inevitable purchase, and watch my friends precede me as usual, I’ve been thinking about how e-reading affects my reading habits. I already spend significant amounts of reading time on the computer, so I know it can be done, but when I’m reading on the computer, I’m never just reading. If I click on a magazine article, I look at another site while it’s loading. Once the article has loaded, I’m easily distracted by incoming emails. If I come across an unfamiliar name or reference, I’m googling in a nanosecond. This isn’t all bad — for one thing, it often generates more to read — but it’s certainly different from the immersion experience of a single engrossing book. And even when I’m reading a book these days, if my BlackBerry is anywhere within sight, I find myself glancing away from the page to see if the red light is blinking, no matter how much I love the book (see David Ulin’s LA Times article, “The Lost Art of Reading,” for a similar lament).
The one place where I still read without interruption is in my bed, at night before I go to sleep, or on the rare and blissful weekend morning when nobody needs to be taken to a cross country meet, soccer game, or Hebrew school. By generally-agreed-upon family practice, we don’t take our electronics upstairs, so my bed remains a computer-and-BlackBerry-free zone and the table next to it remains stacked with paper books.
What will happen to this haven at the end of 2011? Hard to say. I have something of a fetish for the materiality of the paper book, for its weight against my knees, for catching a glimpse of what’s to come as I flip through pages or let my eyes flick from left to right, for knowing by heft how much I’ve read and how far I have to go. Will I keep my e-reader downstairs and reserve upstairs for paper books? Probably, at first. Will I purchase a text-specific e-reader, rather than a multi-purpose device like an iPad, which would make interruption a permanent and omnipresent part of my reading life? Definitely. Will I eventually succumb and bring the e-reader upstairs? Highly likely. Will this lead to the BlackBerry and laptop migrating upstairs? I hope not. Will I give up paper books altogether? Highly doubtful. Indeed, given the long history of coexisting technologies, I’m guessing that when the e-reader makes that upstairs trek, it will sit atop the bedside table’s existing stack.
But what of my kids? According to a recent study, the digital generation likes the idea of digital reading. There’s no question that e-readers will be a good thing (though not the only thing) for learning to read: my kids loved their LeapFrog and websites like Study Island are highly successful for reluctant and low-skilled readers. E-readers also have lots to offer for functional reading: Mara’s online textbooks have been a boon to back and brain, they’ll be even more accessible on an e-reader than a computer, and their multimedia potential is only beginning to be realized. Will Easy Readers and YA fiction and graphic novels and American Girl magazine adapt easily to e-readers, attracting new young readers along the way? For sure.
Still, the idea of curling up with a kid and an image-rich picture book — What Do People Do All Day?, say, or 10 Minutes to Bedtime, or The Quiltmaker’s Gift — to look at the pictures, point to the details, and flip pages back and forth to track the peregrinations of Lowly Worm or the patterns of quilts, loses a certain something when I imagine it with a Kindle, Nook, or iPad.
And will we trust our children to toss e-readers in their backpacks, like Eva does with the worn volumes she brings home from her classroom library? Or, if paper books are confined to the classroom, will they become even more alien to children’s non-required experience? And what about low-income children who hardly have access to books at all, but thrill to the cheap paperbacks handed out by organizations like ReadBoston? It could be that they’ll read on the ubiquitous cell phone; it could be that they’ll read even less than they already do. Meanwhile, interruption and multi-tasking are already the fundamental circumstances of our children’s lives: will the possibility of full immersion in a book vanish from their experience?
It’s easy for me to answer these questions as a Luddite: the book as we know it, and reading as we have known it, are dead. But it’s just as easy for me to answer as an internet utopian: e-reading has the potential to open up possibilities we can’t even imagine. As I vacillate between these extremes, I remember that what I really am is a pragmatist: watching Eva sing along to Taylor Swift videos on YouTube, and then listening to her belt those same songs with her friends in the back seat of the car, I realize that singing has not disappeared with the advent of recorded music; it has simply morphed.
Similarly, reading is not going away, though we don’t know where it’s going. But I do know where I want to go, or, rather, stay. I want to maintain the intimacy of my reading. I want to keep reading in bed, reading in full and uninterrupted communion with the text, and reading to my snuggling children — and, someday, grandchildren. And that I can do, whether it’s on paper or screen.