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Monday, July 14, 2014

Feeling Bookish: The State of Reading

There's a lot going on in the world of books.  I've received a raft of interesting tomes recently, just at the moment when this whole Hachette-Amazon battle has put publishing square in the spotlights.  And that in turn raises an interesting discussion about how Americans get their information in 2014 and what the future of reading looks like.  All of this makes me think it's about time for a series of posts on the subject, including some reviews of these books I've been receiving.  But let's start with an overview. 

How We Read
I get vertigo when I think about how radically we've shifted what we read and how we read it--all in the space of less than two decades.  We may never have gotten our Jetson's flying cars, but we did get the internet, and it has transformed media in ways no one could have imagined or predicted.  Two decades ago, I was working at Memorial Library, a 5-million volume shrine to letters on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  If you wanted information about a subject, you had three choices: newspapers, magazines, or books.  By that time, card-catalogs had given way to computer catalogs, and that alone seemed revolutionary.  But there was no functional internet yet.  Oregon was already a decade into craft brewing, but the internet was being born: "The number of websites grew from 623 at the beginning of the year, according to one study, to more than 10,000 at the end. E-mail quickly spread from universities to offices and homes." 

In the beer world, we passed around rumors and wives' tales about history and brewing because there was no way to readily access anything else.  Within a few years, though, information started filtering onto the internet.  Message boards and listservs helped speed the dissemination of those rumors (as well as some good information.)  A decade later, blogs came into their own and more information flooded onto the internet.  Shortly thereafter, the first social media sites started to proliferate.  The iPhone came in 2007, and by the 2010s, we were all using data from maps, review and social media sites, commercial sites, Wikipedia and search engines to seamlessly navigate between the domains of knowledge and those of terrestrial space. 

From books and mags (pre-1994) to email, message boards, and listservs (pre-2000), to blogs (2002) to social media (from 2003--Myspace--onward), to information that knitted all these sources together in handheld computers (2008ish onward).  With the addition of Wikipedia in 2001 and Google Books around 2006--combined with the extraordinary power of search algorithms--information became instantly accessible to humans at the whisper of a question to Siri.  No flying cars, but that's not too bad.

It's a little hard to appreciate how radically it has changed the way we think about and consume information.  I used to read probably 30-50 books a year.  A certain portion of my day was allotted to reading.  I'm lucky if I hit double digits now.  It's not that I find books any less useful--in a way, I think all this fingertip access has made them more valuable--but the minutes in my day that I can devote to reading has shrunk.  Like everyone else, my eyeballs spend a lot of time being caressed by the soft blue light of my smart phone. 

All of this has changed how information is produced and packaged.  We have become fast-food readers, gobbling information as quickly as possible before clicking on.  Content providers have responded by offering shorter and shorter bits--generally to their detriment.  The publisher of our local paper, the Oregonian, has instructed reporters to squeeze multiple posts out of each story, so you get several half-baked fragments that are the literary equivalent of raw footage.  The O has also decided to package as many stories in list form, or at least to use a headline that suggests a list ("The Five Things to Know About the Street Fee").  That in turn drives readers to scan, because who's going to devote serious brain power to such slapdash "reporting?"  (Treat your reader with contempt and don't be surprised if you lose her.)

It's not entirely clear how all of this affects book reading.  We know that the way we read books has changed.  From an industry report (pdf): "In the United States, where ebooks have taken off dynamically since 2010, until plateauing in 2013, the overall revenues in all of the publishing industry, and print in particular, seem to continue their decline."  Physical books still constitute the pretty large proportion of the market.  Since Amazon doesn't share sales numbers, estimates are a bit dicey, but figure 80% of sales are still hardcover--which doesn't include the second-hand market.  Amazingly, hardcover book sales are now outpacing ebook sales--though I don't think anyone believes ebooks are a fading trend (and paperbacks are tanking).  Overall, book sales seem to be robust, with decent gains in four of the last five years. 

Twenty years ago, almost all our information came from newspapers, magazines, and books.  Now, information comes through dozens of sources, and newspapers and magazines are fighting to stay in business.  We spend more of our reading time on shorter, disposable pieces, but we still reserve some of it for books.  I take from this two lessons.  As readers, we now divide our attention between short pieces for either mindless entertainment or quick facts and longer pieces that help bring that fragmented information together.  People in the content-delivery business, therefore, seem to be sorting themselves into the two camps--providing longer, deeper reads, often at a cost, and disposable listicles and clickbait.  Once I thought the two worlds couldn't coexist, but now it seems like exactly the opposite.  In 1994, we were desperate for quick references.  But in 2014, we need more than just flotsam.  The two types of information are symbiotic; they need each other.  Because we, as readers, consume both types.


  1. I was there when libraries were making the transition from card catalogs to computer records. That was a huge jump in efficiency, in terms of being able to locate information quickly. But, of course, the great bulk of it was still on paper or plastic and had to be pulled and lugged around. When I was writing my MA thesis, had more than 100 books, articles, microfilm and other materials checked out and cluttering my home and office. During last year's book writing project, I had 20 or so books checked out and a boatload of articles and other materials downloaded and viewable with a few clicks. Very little paper for a much larger project.

    Like you, I read fewer books. That doesn't mean I read less. In fact, I probably read more. It's the method of delivery that has changed so dramatically. I think we were becoming "fast food readers" (I love that quote, by the way) long before social media drove us off a cliff. I would argue that social media has changed everything...the way news is covered, written and delivered, how things are advertised, how and why we read, and probably how we think. I worry that attention spans are becoming shorter and shorter as a result of what's happening. If people still reserve time for the occasional book, read either by hard copy or ebook, that's great. The problem, it seems to me, is the ever increasing amount of trivial information we have to deal with by the minute, hour and day. Seeing through that blizzard and picking out the important data points with shorter attention spans is one of the great challenges of our time.

    Thanks for a thoughtful post. I've thought about writing something like this, but never got around to it.

  2. I too have always wanted to write a post like this. I used to consume hardback and paperback books like crazy. The problem is not so much that I find them less interesting or appealing, but is instead the amazing wealth of information the internet provides. Besides beer taps and the beer industry in general, I have several other interests such as pinball, board games, and the Portland Trailblazers. I can find numerous online articles, blogs, and message boards that focus my interests in detail. Finding that kind of information used to come from a single source (The Oregonian for the Blazers), and forget about reading about pinball locally - it just didn't exist before the internet. If I'm researching a craft brewer's history for one of my tap handle posts, I can get on Google and find online articles in an instant; or I can go to a site where thousands of people share my interests. Twenty years ago neither of those were possible.

    The appeal to me is not in lists, quick hits or hack attempts at journalism. Jeff's blog, as well as Pete's, has value in its ability not only reach people all over the country and invite them to engage in thoughtful discussion - let's face it, books, newspapers and magazines are "one-way media" - but they also dive into depths you would never see from a newspaper. Magazines and books do offer the ability to read a topic in depth, but with as fast as the world is changing, some books are out of date the moment they are published. And don't get me started on the benefits of not cutting down so many trees...

    I still read hard cover books, just not as many. I spend a lot of time in front of my screen. But to be honest, I'm not sure I would ever go back to print exclusively. And twenty years from now, maybe I'll be saying I'd never go back to a computer screen again...