7 things we’ve lost by becoming all-digital readers

I’m practically a poster-child for Amazon Kindle. A bookworm from birth, my library of print books was overflowing until I bought one of the very first Kindles, and never looked back. I consume mountains of blogs, online news, etc., but rarely read hard print anymore. In all this, I’ve lost several good habits that were bringing me beneficial results before I slowly, unconsciously gave them up.

Galaxy Magazine October 1953 Asimov Caves of Steel Robot Novel Debut
Credit: Ed Emshwiller

I believe I’m not alone in that. Here’s a list of the activities that I think we’ve largely dropped, relative to the days when 95% of our reading was printed newspapers, glossy magazines, overpriced textbooks, hardbound dictionaries, and pocket paperbacks:

  1. Making good margin notes.  Thinner versus thicker lines for degrees of emphasis; inserting symbols mid-sentence; drawing an arrow to connect sentences and then labeling the arrow: these things often set apart avid readers or budding scholars from those who are just going through the motions of a reading assignment.
    If you take a look through the printed books of a grad student who is destined for success, you’re likely to notice a sophisticated system of markups all over the pages (see below). The process of flipping back through these richly annotated pages was chiefly how PhD dissertations were made, before we moved our books onto iPads.

    Credit: The Open University
  2. Reading serials. There was a time when it was common for even a celebrated author such as Isaac Asimov, when launching a new novel, to bring it to market in installments of about 60 pages each, across several issues of a news stand magazine. In fact, his hit robot novels (including the movie “I, Robot”, starring Will Smith) had their humble beginnings in old monthly pulp fiction rags like the one shown above.
    Although 1953 was well before my time, I remember seeing a lot of these serials in the 80’s and 90’s, and they worked well. Readers who found it daunting to pick up a thick novel, could swallow one installment in a sitting, and wait a month for the next installment.  One-page recaps enabled readers to jump in on, say, the third installment, without having to go back and read all the previous ones.
    This was a unique way to get to know new authors, to “try before you buy.”  Your purchase investment was spread across the one installment and several other short stories in the same issue of the magazine, so if you started an installment and hated it, it didn’t mean you had wasted your $0.35 (okay, today it’d be $6.95).
  3. Browsing dictionary pages. Twelve seconds on Dictionary.com and I’m done, outta there. But by handling a physical dictionary in the old days, odds are that I’d notice other words on the page that looked interesting — some of them variations on the word I looked up, but others not. My vocabulary grew a lot this way, but I don’t do it any more. Star lexicographer Barbara Ann Kipfer, herself a former contributor to Dictionary.com, has a great post about several other things we lose by letting that 5-lb. Webster’s collect dust on our bottom shelf.
  4. Loaning books between friends. Amazon is just starting to experiment with making some books loanable between Kindle owners, but it’s severely limited. In college I would read scores of books borrowed from friends that I would never have bought on my own and couldn’t get easily at the library. This social/learning behavior has practically come to a halt in our e-reading age.
  5. Sharing a book, literally. Another way to share a book, besides loaning it, is to read it simultaneously with another person. This might be a child looking at a picture book next to me on the couch, or it might be a fellow student who forgot his or her book at home.  The more that we carry our e-readers in tow, the less we do this.  But from doing it in the past, I learned things. You tend to talk and comment to each other in a completely different manner when you are co-reading in real time.  “Can you believe this part right here (pointing to a sentence)?” These days, when do we engage in reading in this way?
  6. Reading almost a whole section of a newspaper. Some did it intentionally, like clockwork, at 7am each morning. Others, like me, would intend to read just one article, then would notice the next one and get caught up in it, and then the next, until: Hey, I’m done with this section! There’s something about sitting in a coffee shop with a physical newspaper that lends itself to this behavior. Doing so, I discovered a lot of stories that I would never click on in a news site’s splash page or in a search results page.
  7. Reading the funnies. It’s a crying shame that nobody reads the comic strips any more.  Historically, the comic section was not just for kids or for amusement. These used to provide us social commentary on a consistent basis, creating reference points for conversations at the office water cooler or at the breakfast table at home.
    I recall when Congress neglected impactful legislation to, instead, work on passing an anti-flag burning initiative. The very next Sunday, Gary Trudeau, in his ever-popular Doonesbury strip, replaced the usual 8-cell strip with one that held a large US flag, and a narration that informed consumers they could not dispose of the newspaper, because they’d be desecrating the flag.
Trudeau 1989 Flag Burning Comic
Kids! Here’s a real brain-teaser! Try disposing of today’s comix section without violating George Bush’s proposed constitutional amendment on flag desecration! Sure, this flag’s only paper, but it’s still our nation’s symbol! Remember: No using it to line a bird cage or train a puppy — that’s desecration! No throwing it in the garbage — ditto! No using it to start a fire in the fireplace — that’s flag burning! Good luck! (Credit: Gary Trudeau)

Millions of Americans were discussing this the next morning. But today?  Doonesbury is still a successful strip, and we could print it out and post it in the lunchroom — but we don’t. This strip and others like it now get much less mind share, now that most of us have stopped unrolling print newspapers in the morning.

I’m sure there are additional aspects of impoverishment within our current, paperless mode of content consumption, but this is enough to make me second-guess whether converting to a Kindle-toting, Android-app-scrolling media junkie was altogether good.

Does this mean that I am going to throw away my Kindle (or my iPad, or the e-book app on my smartphone)? No way! My path is forward, not back. But it means that we in the digital media business haven’t got it right yet. Not nearly. We’re doing ourselves a disservice if we don’t find ways to regain, albeit in new forms, these beneficial values that were inherent in the reading experience of yesteryear. Firstly, we have to stop drinking our own KoolAid, stop chanting the mantra that e-reading is just obviously and clearly superior to print. It’s obviously, clearly not. Yet.

Note on current work: At Temnos, we’re working with e-books and online news partners, trying to enable discovery, recommendation, and connectivity between readers. We won’t be time-warping to the 1990’s, but we’ll be thinking about the reading experiences that were left behind in that decade; experiences that the Millennial generation needs to have in a new way.

3 thoughts on “7 things we’ve lost by becoming all-digital readers

  1. This is a fantastic appreciation of the printed book. I, too, wanted that first Kindle, but now all that is on it are e-versions of the books I have written myself. I want to hold a book. Here’s hoping that this is a cycle and people will come around to appreciating the need for print to stay. Let’s also hope that journalism becomes professional journalism again (no misspellings on the front page of the New York Times), that every book we read does not have errors because the book publishing industry slows down and realizes the importance of the language used in its books, and dictionaries and other reference books are once again made and revered as serious studies of language (instead of using a search engine for SOME type of answer and not caring if a professional devised it).

  2. Interesting post Tim. I was just thinking about this in the context of music the other day. I think a lot of good music is lost because people buy the hit only but don’t buy the entire album, err disc, err MP3 collection…

  3. I’m a hybrid consumer of the written word. I still prefer books for evergreen content such as novels and off-the-grid information such as maps and travel guides (electronics aren’t convenient everywhere). No e-book reader can replace the tactile experience of a book, yet.

    However, for short-term and rapidly changing content such as news, software manuals, and technology publications the electronic form is the way to go. The unwieldy dimensions of newspapers, and the clutter and mess (inky fingers!) that they generate, were always major detractors to me.

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