Digital Books: The Decline Of Print Books Matters

The proliferation of e-books and electronic reading devices like Kindles and iPads over the past several years has sparked a vibrant discussion — largely apologists for traditional print trying to convince us why hard copies are better than e-books and why traditional books are here to stay. Others write off the whole debate as pointless and don't really care so long as people are actually reading. 

With something as important as reading on the line, however, we certainly ought to care about this alleged evolution of reading. Both sides have a point. There's something to be said for the look of a beautiful cover, creased pages, notes in the margins, and even the smell of fresh or aged binding. These things give readers' books new layers of meaning and memories, and we shouldn't discount that. 

On the flip side, though, Kindles are easier to carry around than most books and can contain a small library. Furthermore, sentimentality has never actually done anything for human progress, and the nostalgia factor, presumably, won't be an issue for the next generation if children grow up reading on a Kindle or iPad. At this point, the cat is out of the technological bag. E-reader sales are on the rise (though the rate of growth in sales has slowed dramatically in the past year) and they aren't going away.

Much of the discussion centers around whether e-books and traditional print can coexist going forward. It's a good question, but the answer ought to be contingent on a deeper one that these debates have largely neglected, can we make any sort of value judgment about whether it is better for us to read traditional print or e-books?

Part of what makes books so powerful, especially in our Internet-saturated world of wi-fi-capable devices, is their ability to isolate us. Reading a book disengages one's mind from peripheral distractions and trains the reader to focus on a single, lengthy, substantial narrative or argument. Nothing about a traditional print book threatens to pull the reader away from its contents because the only thing vying for your attention is the words on the page.

Not so with Kindles and iPads. Granted, they may not interrupt you like a phone would, but those screens represent a slew of constant temptations, to switch to another book, surf the net, check email, look up the definition of a word, anything to distract us from the book at hand. All of those options at one's fingertips are bound to press the reader with at least a mildly passive decision fatigue, and that doesn't bode well for one's concentration and, by extension, comprehension. 

Technology writer Nicholas Carr delves into the crux of this issue in his book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. He argues that the Internet is retarding our capacity for deep thinking and extensive memory. Operating on a currency of hits and click-throughs, the web thrives on distraction, training our minds to jump from one subject to another within seconds. As a result, the reading you do on a blog or news site (like PolicyMic!) is completely different from the phenomena of reading a book. Reading an e-book is obviously much closer to traditional reading than skimming blogs, but it nonetheless straddles the line in a way that should at least raise some questions.

This is the factor neglected in debates over the merits of e-books and traditional print. Carr himself actually touched on this in a WSJ article last January, noting that e-books lose a lot of their allure when forced to compete with decidedly easier pleasures like games, videos, and Facebook, but he could have pressed it further. Will our overall comprehension and focus be hindered by the apps and articles vying for our attention on our Kindles and iPads? In my own experience, I have a hard enough time sitting down with a normal book for an hour without stopping to check Facebook 30 minutes in. 

In any case, I think we can safely say that the depth of our reading certainly won't get better if the next generation learns to read primarily on Kindles and iPads. E-readers have plenty to offer in terms of practicality, but it's time to take the debate deeper. Do they affect the quality of reading itself? If so, we certainly should care about the decline of printed books.