Let’s Get Digital

28 06 2011

Yesterday, a friend stopped by to lend me a book. Yes. A book. You know…one of those things printed on a few hundred pages, glued at the center, and protected by a nice colorful hard cover.

Inside I was tempest of mixed emotions…thankful for her kindness, waxing nostalgic about how just 6 months ago I bought only tangible books, and wondering how much longer we’ll even be using such things as the market rapidly goes digital.

Because a new Pew Research Center study shows that 20% of Americans now own an e-Reader and/or tablet device. And I have been leading the charge of the write brigade.

To be honest, I am actually looking forward to some quality hammock time in July, way up in the mountains, where the view between my crossed feet will be towering Long’s Peak. And I’ll be juggling this borrowed tome along with my iPad (with its shelf full of unread digi-books).

I am not always the very first to jump on a bandwagon, but when I do, I usually go full bore. To wit: I now “buy” my music through streaming audio services like Rhapsody, stream movies and shows via Netflix and Hulu Plus, and read books through the Kindle app on my iPad.

But I am also a hopeless nostalgic, which may explain why I still have 600 vinyl LPs staring at me (not to mention hundreds of CDs and DVDs). I love to dip back into old-school media. And I have not peddled my personal library either. These shelves will remain filled with all the books I have spent my life accumulating.

It’s just that we are on the cusp of a major media transition here. We just don’t need to own tangible goods anymore, and the fact that 20% of us now own a device capable of downloading a book speaks volumes. Yes. Pun intended, thank you very much. It says that a rapidly growing group of USAmericans (twice as many as just six months ago) are now capable of, and likely willing to, consume books, magazines and newspapers via a small handheld device.

The trends are also interesting in that, of this 20%, the biggest growth is in e-Readers (jumping from 6% to 12%), while tablets are somewhat behind (increasing from 5% to 8%). There is a small 3% group owning both devices.

The academic in me wonders about the reading motivations people have these days, and whether these motivations are served the same way (or better, or worse) via e-Readers and tablets vis-a-vis standard books. In fact, it is this very subject that my gracious book lender and I have been studying the last six months ourselves. We both sense that we are witnessing not just a paradigm shift in how books are consumed, but getting down to why people read in the first place. Apparently the sensations of flipping pages, dog-earing pages, inserting margin notes and falling asleep with an open book over your face are not on the list.

Or lending, which is generally not available on most e-Readers.

Which, of course, is why I most happy to accept this book on loan. We just might be losing the ability to share our possessions. Lending books with friends is the mix tape of reading, for we are giving a little bit of ourselves. Just as we once shared our music with friends by making custom tapes and CDs of our favorite tunes (in spite of it technically being illegal), a book on loan from a friend is an endorsement. An acknowledgment that, hey, I think you’re gonna like this one. An act of friendship.

And it saddens me just a bit to know that all those unread books on my iPad will stay right there. Waiting. For me to read. Or maybe not. Because at the end of the day, books really are for sharing, not hoarding to oneself. Or reading alone.

Dr “Out On A Limb” Gerlich


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