A stylized illustration of an open book made to look like an open laptop, surrounded by several closed books and a pen, all set against a vibrant red background.

This is a bit of a strange ramble-post which largely rehashes the discussion/debate we’ve been having for over 15 years about the qualitative difference between reading on screens versus reading on paper. The difference is that there is the added layer of moral panic about people reading fewer books.

What is rarely included in this kind of thing is that we are emerging from what Walter Ong called the Gutenberg Parenthesis, a time in which the written word dominated. That wasn’t true before the printing press, and it’s unlikely to be true going forward given the preponderance of new media. This post-Gutenberg phase is known as ‘secondary orality’ as it depends upon literate culture.

I will always prefer the written word, mainly because it’s more information dense than video and audio content. But there’s room for everything without endless hand-wringing.

The e-reading apps have their merits. At times, they become respites from the other, more addictive apps on my phone. Switching to a book from, say, Twitter, is like the phone-scroller’s version of a nice hike—the senses reorient themselves, and you feel more alert and vigorous, because you’ve spent six to eight minutes going from seven to eleven per cent of Arthur Koestler’s “Darkness at Noon.” Or you might feel a sense of pride because you’ve reached the sixty-per-cent mark in Elton John’s autobiography, “Me,” which isn’t a great work of literature but at least is better than Twitter. The book apps also seem to work as a stopgap for children, who are always lusting after screen time of any sort. My seven-year-old daughter has read hundreds of books on the Libby app, which lets you check out e-books from public libraries you belong to. As a parent, I find this wildly preferable to hearing the din of yet another stupid YouTube short or “Is it Cake?” episode coming through her iPad’s speakers.

Still, the arrival of these technologies has been accompanied by a steady decline in the number of books that get read in any form. A pair of 1999 Gallup polls, for example, found that Americans, on average, had read 18.5 books in the course of the previous twelve months. (It should be noted that these were books people had read, or said they had read, “either all or part of the way through.”) By 2021, the number had fallen to 12.6. In 2023, a National Endowment for the Arts survey found that the share of American adults who read novels or short stories had declined from 45.2 per cent in 2012 to 37.6 per cent in 2022, a record low. There are plenty of theories about why this is happening, involving broad finger-pointing toward the Internet or the ongoing influence of television, or even shifting labor conditions, as more women have entered the workforce.

Source: The New Yorker