This is intended as satire. David Ferrer is not old, cynical, technophobic or curmudgeonly. He’s actually a pretty pleasant guy who enjoys many modern conveniences.
When is the last time you read a book cover to cover?
Chances are you haven’t read a novel in over a year. A year! In a 2015 study by the National Endowment for the Arts, only 43% of adults reported reading a complete novel within the last year. If you are a student, maybe you’ve read a textbook or a required book for class. But when no one is twisting your arm, you probably wouldn’t read any more than adults do.
Serious book-length reading is on the decline. Most people aren’t reading the Farmer’s Almanac every harvest season like I do. Most people don’t study dictionaries like I do. Most people aren’t using their local libraries, except maybe to rent movies or to flirt with girls in glasses. Book stores are closing down, newspapers are retiring, and the librarisaurus is nearly extinct. The collective written culture of humanity is dissolving into digital wind.
E-readers are taking the place of books. Google is replacing our brains. And skimming has become the shriveled little substitute for what used to be called “reading.” What reading we still do is mostly social media feeds, text messages, news reels, and entertainment sites. Our literary diet is all junk food. Effectively, we gorge on trivia but are starved of knowledge. Does no one eat their vegetables anymore? Real, actual reading is rare these days, pushed aside by fast-paced entertainments of the digital age. Books aren’t enough anymore. They have to be digitized to compete in the Internet age. E-readers are a fleeting effort to rescue reading, but they are still a bit of a novelty. E-readers haven’t caught on in Europe, South America, Australia, or Africa. They have a decent fanbase in Asia and America, but that’s not enough to suggest some new paradigm shift. Reading is clearly changing, but the question remains—what role do physical books have in these changing times?
Is Reading Dead?
Alarmists may be wondering whether reading is dead. Literacy isn’t exactly booming, but no, reading is far from dead. Reading isn’t dead, but it is thinning out. Physical books, hardback and paperback books are still around. And despite declining numbers in traditional book publishers, print-on-demand and digital publishers are growing. Book publishers are still alive and kicking, even if the market has been shifting drastically in the digital era. But the headline story over all of this literature is the sheer magnitude of text messaging, tweeting, posting, blogging, and all the many temporal forms of digital information that are effectively shallowing our reading capacity to the depth of a puddle.
That survey results noted above show a decline in whole-book reading, but people are still reading non-fiction books, short books, articles, magazines, journals, and the host of other legitimate media, even if the preponderance of trivial reading is greater still. Naomi Baron’s Words Onscreen (2015) makes a powerful case that physical books are here to stay for the foreseeable future. After comparing and contrasting books with e-readers, she concludes with what might be called “Baron’s Thesis,” that the immediate future bodes well for both books and ebooks. Perhaps the future will feature books and ebooks cohabiting like a big happy family.
Or maybe not. Maybe we are stuck in a love triangle with ourselves, torn between books and digital/Internet media. The Internet is just waiting to pounce and murder off books so she can have us all to herself. We would be left married to the Internet, with only her occasional ebooks to satisfy our minds. Mostly, though, we aren’t supposed to care what we’ve lost, how we’ve sold our soul, so long as we have our “fix” of digital entertainment. We are supposed to happily sacrifice the bride of our youth—the books that treated you so well—trading up for the younger sleeker model (digital media). This is not a love affair worth writing about. This is more like a junkie and his fix.
Baron’s Thesis is compelling, but it’s not 100% convincing. The future of reading isn’t clear. We still have to ask an important follow-up. Reading may not be dead, but is it dying? This old cynic has seen too many failed prophecies to trust the apocalyptic weather forecasters who promise a “paperless society” or global warming, or Ebola. Don’t get your panties in a wad. Everything is just as terrible as it’s always been. So, there’s no reason to get all upset now. And books aren’t going away anytime soon, not if I can help it.
The Ebook Revolution
Ebooks however are growing in the market, and paper books are declining. We shouldn’t be surprised either. The ebook revolution is a product of the times. These days, everything that’s not nailed down gets stolen and put in the “cloud,” whatever the “cloud” is. To be fair, the digital shift makes some sense. It is pretty handy to “Google” your questions, even if you’d be smarter and healthier if you used the legs God gave you, scraped yourself out of your bucket-seat EZ chair, walked to the shelf, grabbed an encyclopedia, and read a real article by a real expert, who knows what they’re talking about.
I can’t really blame the kids for enjoying Netflix more than old-fashioned TV, and using Google for basic questions. I’d have done the same thing if I was young and dumb again. It only makes sense for the same people to buy an ebook, because it’s convenient and you can help save the planet.
Go digital and save a tree. I guess it’s better to burn hours of electricity to keep your device running. Who cares about energy conservation when you can save 6 ounces of tree from deforestation?
Yes, I’m cynical about ebooks but I’m not blind. Ebooks aren’t all bad. Some books never make it to print, but they can be found in digital form. If that’s the only way to read that book, then something is better than nothing. You can also search text, change the brightness, change the colors, and you can save some space. Do you know what they call a shelf full of ebooks? An empty shelf.
You can save shelf space in your home. And with your empty shelves, you can fill them with other important things like old printers, broken cell phones, 13 different kinds of cell-phone cables, old computers, tablets, iPods, that CD player from the 90’s and all the different digital ware that help you save the planet. Storing those in your home means you are reducing our dependence on landfills . . . by making your home a tiny landfill of your own. The Earth owes you a big thank you.
Also, when your shelves are free of books, you are guaranteed that no one will be thumbing through your books. You have some privacy. That means that if you want to read something naughty during your morning commute, you don’t have to declare your book cover to everyone else on the subway. With ebooks, there’s no book-cover facing the world. No one else has to know you’re reading 50 Shades of Gross.
And no one mentions the biggest advantage of ebooks. You can prop it up. Whether you read from your phone, your tablet, or an E-reader, all of these have stands and stand-cases so you can set it down and read hands-free. I may be a crusty curmudgeon, but I can enjoy convenience now and again. Maybe I want to read while I’m eating my morning fiber. Now I can set it down and keep reading while double-fisting my afternoon prune juice.
But let’s be clear here, if you consider it too much work to hold a book open to read it, then you are a lazy bum. Nevertheless, I must give credit where credit is due. It’s nice to have the option to set a book down without it closing on you.
What’s the Cost?
Ebooks are part of a growing digital wave that is absolutely flooding the world. The question is whether we’ll be like Venice surviving the flood as a healthy albeit waterlogged civilization? Or will we be like Atlantis, lost under the sea? The jury is still out on that one.
Digital books, digital libraries, and digital everything have placed an Alexandrian-sized library of information at our disposal. Yet with a world of knowledge at our fingertips, we have hardly a phone-number left in our heads. Somehow the digital revolution has ruined our memory. That particular mental muscle is atrophied from lack of exercise. This shouldn’t be surprising. Our mapping ability is weaker too because we use the GPS on our phones and dashboards. Our handwriting is awful because we type everything now. And pretty soon, we won’t know how to talk to people unless there’s a screen between us. Ebooks are just one aspect of the big mixed-bag of digital trade-offs—more convenience but less patience, more options but less focus, more stuff but less meaning.
Ebooks, text-messaging, blogging, and social media are supposed to make us smarter because we’re writing more, and we can read more easily, with better access to literature, and more options to choose from. But somehow we’ve settled into an entertainment glut instead. In my years—and I’m an old fart—I’ve come to understand that learning is hard work. But it’s meaningful work. I don’t expect learning to be fun. Fun has to be earned. And it should be reserved for weekends after you do your chores. You do far better to enjoy work, enjoy reading, and find your fun in the labors of life. Otherwise you end up a slacker, quitting your job, playing video games, disappointing the world till you end up dead in a ditch from snorting marijuana.
The digital age has been whispering otherwise. The lie of our times says you can have all the fun with little work. Convenience is king. We don’t need to do hard work—like reading a whole book—when we can work around the work. Why read the book when you can see the movie? If it’s not been made into a movie yet, then why read the whole book when you can read the SparkNotes or CliffsNote version online? Why read those if you can get the gist of it by skimming Amazon reviews on the book? And why read at all, when the information is already logged in a Wikipedia page and you can look it up later, if you ever need it in the future? Why learn anything if all that information is already out there, stored at your fingertips? If the information is floating out there on the interweb somewhere, then you can just wait and look it up later.
Meanwhile, you have some screen-binging to do. Those Doctor Who episodes aren’t going to watch themselves. How did we get here? How do we have a world of information around us but only an outhouse of knowledge within us? Of course, I blame the interweb. Call her what you will: Internet, World Wide Web, Skynet, Ultron, the Matrix. Whatever you think of the Internet, she’s strong, she’s growing, she’s already dominating your consciousness, and she’s poised to destroy civilization. E-readers are just one of her many tendrils. Apocalyptic? Sure. But I’m not scared because we can still pull the plug, literally. The Internet can’t run on solar power! So, as scary as the Internet may be, we still have that digital beast on a chain. I’m cynical, but I’m no fool.
Ebooks Versus Books
We might have the beast on the chain, but we love it too much to let it go.
The Internet is big and powerful, but its real “sticking” power is that we love it too much. I can rant and rave against the interweb all I want, but I know an unwinnable battle when I see one. It’s no use trying to fight against the information age. I’m pro-information myself, don’t get me wrong. There are good things to be found in the tidal wave of digital-online everything. But, it’s not exactly clear that e-readers have a major part to play.
The tiny-phone and flip phone trends have faded out. People are now using medium and large phones. These, along with tablets, are becoming the medium of choice for reading ebooks. According to Pew Research smart phone ownership is growing but e-readers are declining swiftly in sales—with all the major brands showing marked losses: Kindle, Nook, and Kobo. E-readers may or may not go away entirely. But the point to be made here is that ebooks work just as well on phones, tablets, and even laptops as they do on e-readers.
Whatever objections we may have against e-readers, we may not have to worry about them for too much longer. Between e-readers and ebooks, the fitter species is the ebook. Ebooks can be used on a range of devices, whereas E-readers are dedicated reading devices. They are the worst of both worlds. E-readers aren’t as versatile or as interesting as tablets or phones, but they are still too “plugged in” and distraction-driven to have the benefits of a regular book.
No, the real competition isn’t between books and e-readers (like Kindle, Nook, and Kobo). The competition is between ebooks and books, as ebooks pose some serious competition in terms of convenience, weight, and cost (per book). But you aren’t reading this article to hear me praise digital media. You aren’t reading something from Wired Magazine or some hipster tech-head. You’re reading a cynic’s guide and it’s my sworn duty to cynicize for you. If “cynicize” is not a word, well dangit, I’m making it a word right now!
Point is, traditional books are superior, vastly superior, to ebooks. To find out why, read my 50 Reasons Real Books are Vastly Superior to Ebooks.