E-Books Won’t Disappear — But The Way We Read Will

Don’t worry – they’re not coming for your e-books. Not yet, anyway.

The blogosphere/libraryland/readers everywhere are in a dither over Hugh McGuire’s TEDx talk about the disappearance of e-books within five years or so. There’s much weeping, wailing and wringing of hands, most of it due to a blog post  by Porter Anderson that seems to vaguely extrapolate from this TEDx talk that e-books are going to disappear into the “ego noise” of the Internet.

It’s much ado about nothing. In fact, McGuire’s presentation says no such thing, something he’s quick to point out in the blog post’s comments.  “I never said books (or ebooks) will disappear; I said that “the distinction between books and the internet will disappear”” says McGuire in the comments, and the other commenters, some of which beat McGuire to the punch, wholeheartedly agree.

Whether this TEDx talk/blog post’s viral nature speaks to lovers of print books’ need to disparage e-books, or just a complete misunderstanding of the source material is but one interesting aspect of this story. The more intriguing thing is how McGuire and Anderson both miss the whole point. The difference between e-books and the Internet is already so fine as to be, in many cases, non-existent, as anyone with a Kindle or an iPad knows well. The better question, however, is how reading an e-book, whether on the Internet, a Kindle, an iPad or even a smartphone, changes the way we read.

When you pick up an actual book, your mind may wander, but the information remains the same. Without laying that book aside and seeking out more and different information, there is no way to add value to the information as it is (unless someone has made margin notes, which is a conversation for another day). All you have is what’s before you; the viewpoint of the author is static, as is the information presented, until you manually seek out additional information. There is time, then, to absorb the information without extra-contextualization.

Reading e-books on an Internet-ready device changes the experience completely. Want to know what other readers think of the book? Go straight to the linked reviews. Come across a name you don’t recognize? Google it. Want to know more about the author? Google it. Want to highlight a section? See if anyone else has highlighted it, as well.

The larger question is, how does reading a book that is basically a living thing differ from reading what many laughingly call a “dead tree” book? It’s a question that’s already been asked and answered of the e-book’s next of kin, the Internet.  Way back in 2008, The Atlantic‘s Nicholas Carr began to worry that the Internet was affecting his ability to read and digest text in an article titled “Is Google Making Us Stupid“. While 2008 does not seem to be eons ago, it pre-dates the e-book frenzy that began around 2010-2011, so much so that Carr does not even mention e-books to any degree in the essay. Yet the conclusion he draws from his online reading habits mirrors almost exactly what McGuire forecasts in his TED talk:

When the [Internet]* absorbs a medium, that medium is re-created in the [Internet’s] image. It injects the medium’s content with hyperlinks, blinking ads, and other digital gewgaws, and it surrounds the content with the content of all the other media it has absorbed.

This recreation of the e-book in the Internet’s image is what McGuire is extolling as the e-book as Internet’s biggest virtue, and what, as Carr has already discovered, is the biggest difference in the way we read even ten years ago and the way we read now.

But is it indeed a virtue? The examples that McGuire and Anderson use are hardly relevant to most e-book reading; while the majority of Amazon’s e-book sales are fiction and creative non-fiction, McGuire and Anderson cite a YouTube interactive Bible and an online version of  the 1912 journal of Robert Scott’s expedition to the South Pole that’s linked to Google Maps. The best thing about the Google Maps-enabled Scott journal, according to McGuire? It’s “a beautiful web experience.”

Is a beautiful web experience what we want, when we reach for a book? Do we want the same type of added-value, extra-context information that we get from a web page? Is that even good for us?

Carr references developmental pyschologist Maryanne Wolf’s  Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain extensively in making his argument that Google and the Internet are (or already have) changing the way we read:

… the style of reading promoted by the [Internet], a style that puts “efficiency” and “immediacy” above all else, may be weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier technology, the printing press, made long and complex works of prose commonplace. When we read online, [Wolf] says, we tend to become “mere decoders of information.” Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged.

The idea that the Internet was changing the way we think so disturbed Carr that he expanded his article into a full-length book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. In the book, Carr states something that is intriguing, if the line between books and the Internet is indeed blurred:

Dozens of studies by psychologists, neurobiologists, and educators point to the same conclusion: When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning. Even as the Internet grants us easy access to vast amounts of information, it is turning us into shallower thinkers, literally changing the structure of our brain.

If you’re ready to dismiss Carr and Wolf as hysterical doomsayers, don’t do so just yet.  As a reader, can I learn to recognize symbolism if it’s highlighted and pointed out to me? Can I derive understanding from a chunk of text when it’s diluted by links to ever more information? Or will I, as Carr noted that he already had, simply skim the text, jumping from hyperlink to hyperlink, never actually absorbing what the author is saying?

As someone who’s already noticed the same changes in reading habits as Carr has, I’m not sure I want to read books the way I read the Internet. I want a literal disconnect, when I read. I want to be absorbed by the text, not continually distracted. This is coming from someone who loves to read annotated non-fiction, the original hyper-textualized text; when I read non-fiction, I expect additional information. When I read creative non-fiction or fiction, I find it intrusive.

McGuire’s vision of a world where e-books are the Internet is frightening to me. We’ve already reached a stage where simply choosing to read the print book instead of the hyperlinked, added-value version may be threatened. E-book sales on Amazon have already surpassed the sales of printed books, and Amazon is quickly gobbling up print and e-book publishers, including one that caters to libraries. Many books are being published in e-book format only, leaving a reader no other choice but to read the e-book.

As e-books overtake printed books, and e-books become Internet, our reading becomes Internet reading, as well. Do we want the old way of reading to disappear? And can stop it?

*In each instance where you see [Internet], I’ve substituted for Carr’s quaint use of “the Net,” out of fear that you, reader, are already a victim of the type of reading he and Wolf are concerned about. “The Net” functions as hypertextualization that will have you laughing aloud as you fondly recall the days when the Internet was known as the “World Wide Web” and “Information Superhighway.”

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One Response to “E-Books Won’t Disappear — But The Way We Read Will”

  1. […] than good to reading skills.  The Guardian recently reported on a study that found that reading enhanced e-books was actually detrimental to children’s reading comprehension: Children reading enhanced […]

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