November 26, 2007

Is it possible to end the opposition between books and the internet?

According to a recent study from the national endowment for the Arts, those people who read books and other printed matter in their private time are a declining portion of the American population. The study notes that this decrease in reading for pleasure is accompanied by an increase in internet use. However, when the NEA study asked the people in its survey whether they read books not required for work or school, they did not take into account the other kinds of reading that people do for pleasure—especially in the online realm.

With the increase of time people spend in front of computer screens looking for and processing information, it may be that today we spend more time reading than we did in generations past—it is just that what we read is on the screen rather than in the form of a book. Does this mean screen based reading is in some ways less informative, less pleasant, or less of an intellectual exercise than reading a physical book?

Apparently Amazon is betting that the answer to those questions is no. It just released Kindle, a device that uses cell phone network technology (called ‘Whispernet’) to allow people to access the internet to download books, newspapers, popular blogs, and other textual products into a sleek portable screen device around the size of a paperback book. Lest we think of Kindle as a text-based iPod, Amazon is careful to situate Kindle as a service as much as a product—a constant stream of information available in subscription and pay-as-you-go formats.

Kindle is certainly not the first digital reading device—Sony has a digital reader that is sold in Borders book store. However, (if one discounts laptops and cell phones) it is the first to link wirelessly to literary web content. It is hard to know whether a portable screen device will encourage more people to read for pleasure, but it will certainly provide another avenue for people who love books and reading to further their passion. People will be able to own a paper book copy of “Pride and Prejudice,” have an audio version of the book on CD in their car, and a digital copy for their Kindle reader. In this way, digital readers like Kindle are harnessing the aggregating and distribution power of the internet to diversify a book’s “brand.”

As the decline in literary reading has corresponded with a rapid increase in internet use, it will be interesting to see whether new reading devices that take advantage of the internet’s ability to aggregate and customize information will help reverse this downward trend.