Is Reading Books a Dying Art?

With the rise of multi-tasking, skim reading, and scouring the web for multiple bits of information, we can be forgiven for thinking that reading books might be a dying art.

Vote for whether you think reading books is a dying art or not, then read our article and vote again at the end. Did your view change? Each time, you’ll be able to see what the general consensus is.

Going the way of Cursive Handwriting?

When typewriters and keyboards entered mainstream use, many people must have wondered, “is this the end of cursive writing?”

If you’re like me, it is now strangely challenging to write comfortably and swiftly by hand. Years of tapping on real or virtual keyboards have taken their toll and my handwriting is now a disgrace.

Hard to believe, isn’t it, that this is how we used to write? An example of American business handwriting known as Spencerian script from 1884.

Classic American business cursive handwriting known as Spencerian script from 1884
Classic American business cursive handwriting known as Spencerian script from 1884

Few have the time, let alone the skill, to write like this anymore. Instead, we tap away at our screens and press a button to deliver in fractions of a second what took days or even weeks to arrive in someone’s hands.

And so we reach the same crossroads with reading books.

The Victorian Love Affair with Novels

The Victorians loved books—especially novels. Literacy rates rose rapidly during the Victorian era, and the cheaper costs of publication and distribution made books more accessible to a much wider audience.

The Reading Light by Georg Pauli, 1884
The Reading Light by Georg Pauli, 1884

Fiction was increasingly being targeted at specific markets, but some books had universal appeal. English philosopher and critic of literature and theater, G H Lewes, said of Charles Dickens’s Pickwick Papers (1836–37):

even the common people, both in town and country, are equally intense in their admiration. Frequently, have we see the butcher-boy, with his tray on his shoulder, reading with the greatest avidity the last “Pickwick”; the footman (whose fopperies are so inimitably laid bare), the maidservant, the chimney sweep, all classes, in fact, read “Boz”

Totally absorbed in a novel, Victorians set their imaginations free and developed deep thinking.

Portrait Of A Girl Reading by Thomas Sully, 1842
Portrait Of A Girl Reading by Thomas Sully, 1842

They contemplated what they had read. Did this level of deep thought help nurture ideas on social reform, welfare, and women’s suffrage?

Interrupted Reading by Camille Corot, 1870

Our Modern Reading Habits

Consider the amount and type of reading we do on large computer screens at home and at work and on mobile devices like iPads and high-resolution smartphones.

We probably do a lot of email reading and writing, lots of browsing our favorite web pages, watching plenty of videos, and of course, engaging with Facebook and other social media platforms.

In each case, we’re flitting from one source of information to another very quickly and we’re typically not reading long passages of text like those of novels.

This has some people concerned about our ability to develop deep thinking.
Contains affiliate links
The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr

In his book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr makes the case that the printed book focuses our attention, developing deep and creative thought.

He argues that the Internet actually encourages “skim reading” where we forage for bits of information from many sources at a much shallower level.

Are we losing our capacity for concentration, contemplation, and reflection?

“Not necessarily”, Stephen Johnson, author of Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, would say.

Chance favors the connected mind.

He posits that the Age of Enlightenment was driven by environments where many ideas could mingle, swap, and create new forms.

Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson

These “environments” were provided by the coffee houses and salons of 17th and 18th-century Europe.

In other words, ‘flitting” around the Internet and sharing what we find with others is precisely the type of activity that leads to new ideas, new knowledge, and new breakthroughs.

Johnson says that it’s true we are more distracted, but the more ways we have to connect with each other and share bits of information over the Internet, the more likely it is for new ideas to form—”chance favors the connected mind”.

Why can’t we do both?

Indeed, many arguments about the virtues and evils of the Internet assume that we face an “either/or” choice—either we skim read and lose our powers of contemplation, or we read deeply and miss out on serendipitous connections.

In his 1964 work, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, public intellectual Marshal McLuhan famously stated that “the medium is the message”. By that, he meant that the form we use to absorb information has a bearing on how we perceive the information.

So, for example, books are a great medium for reading long stories, whereas the web is a great medium for gathering and sharing snippets of information.

Reading comfortably is key

If we think about how we’re reading on the Internet, it comes as no surprise that we don’t read long passages. It’s just not comfortable to do so.

Our computer screens at work and home, together with our smartphones and tablets are “backlit devices“—they all emit light directly into our eyes.

All that light and glare at close quarters makes our eyes tire more quickly and can give us eye strain.

The American Optometric Association calls it computer vision syndrome, or digital eyestrain. They say that those of us who look at screens for two or more hours in a row every day are at greatest risk because we tend to:

  • Blink less while using computers (blinking is key to moistening the eyes)
  • View digital screens at less-than-ideal distances or angles
  • Use devices that have glare or reflection
  • Use devices with poor contrast between the text and the background

E Ink to the rescue?

Is reading books a dying art?

Book lovers point to the magical feel of a physical book in the hand and the smell of an old book in a specialty bookstore—there’s nothing quite like it.

Old books. Credit guldfisken
Old books—don’t you just love the smell of them?. Credit guldfisken

But the future of the actual book-reading process is more secure thanks to devices like Amazon’s Kindle. They have injected new life into mainstream books and will help keep reading as popular as ever.

In November 2007, Amazon released its first E Ink (electronic ink) Kindle. It may not seem all that significant to us now, but the Kindle is probably the driver of the biggest change to the written word since the Gutenberg Press.

Why is it so significant for reading?

Because Kindle and other E Ink devices aim to be the electronic analog of real paper. For decades, an electronic version of paper had been considered the “Holy Grail” for the future of books.

To many, Amazon has been the most effective at building eReader devices … but do they really look like print on paper? The simple answer is yes—it’s difficult to imagine anything getting closer to real paper than a Kindle.

It took some pretty brainy MIT undergraduates to create E Ink—and they gave it an appropriately scientific-sounding name: a microencapsulated electrophoretic display.

To put the transformative effect of their work into perspective, the inventors of E Ink were inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in May 2016 alongside greats such as Thomas Edison, the Wright Brothers, and Steve Jobs.

Besides mimicking the look of print on paper, E Ink devices include the benefits we get with many electronic devices:

  • books in digital form take up no physical space, so we can cram thousands of them onto a single device.
  • integrated directly into the device are a set of useful digital tools—things like searching for text, bookmarking, and even highlights and notes that can be shared with others on social networks
Father's Day Special Offers on a range of Kindle Readers
Paperwhite Essential Bundle

Save $40 on Kindle Paperwhite Essentials Bundle

Bundle includes the all-new Kindle Paperwhite, Amazon Leather Cover, and Amazon Power Adapter for $139.97 (list price: $179.97 when sold separately).

Tablets can do all the same fancy stuff with text, but isn’t one of the greatest joys being able to read outdoors?

Artists of the 19th century developed an expression for painting outdoors —”en plein air”, meaning in the open air.

A Woman Reading by Claude Monet, 1872
A Woman Reading by Claude Monet, 1872

Reading books isn’t going out of style anytime soon because we’ve found a new way to enjoy books that’s not only kept pace with technological change but also fits our mobile lifestyles perfectly.

Whether you’re sitting among the flowers, have found a nice secluded spot at the beach, or you’re lounging around the pool, this one photo shows why reading in the electronic age is as popular as it’s ever been.

Kindle Paperwhite

Take the Poll

Did your view change? See what others think—take the poll.

Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I may receive an affiliate commission. I only recommend products or services that I believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

David James

David James

A Brit living in the United States, I'm interested in how we can better use technology to learn and collaborate. My interests include history, creativity & innovation, British culture and travel, philosophy in business, and educational technology.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *