Are We Reading Less Because of the Rise of the Digital Generation?

UnknownWill reading decline because of the digital revolution? Instinctively many (most?) of my generation thinks the correct answer is a resolute yes. But, as college football analyst Lee Corso often says, “Not so fast my friend!”

We are dumbing down, or so the accepted line of argument goes, thus fewer and fewer books are now being sold. Libraries will soon be dinosaurs, or so I heard more than a few friends and enemies say in my recent experience with the Library Board election this year in my hometown of Carol Stream. Few bothered to really dig into this pressing question when it was raised, pro or con. I am not sure why but as with so many popular conclusions this one is just wrong.

In an age of countless data downloads and multiplied distractions one simple fact is now becoming more clear – a significant number of Americans, especially between 18-40, are reading more books than ever thanks to using e-readers and tablets. A national poll conducted for USA Today, and a website designed to help readers discover and buy books, found a growing community that is both literary and digital.

Here is some of the interesting information from the poll: 40%, including 46% of those under 40, say that they have an e-reader such as a Kindle or a tablet like an iPad. In 2011 that number was only 18%. That is a huge increase in less than two full years!

But are people actually using these devices or are they merely buying them? Since buying such a device 35% report that they have been reading more books, not less. Of those who bought e-readers specifically the number is 41%. Adults with a reading device say they average 18 books per year compared with only 11 books for those without such a device. And many say not going to a library or bookstore has encouraged them to buy and read more books, not less. By the way, you can still use the library to borrow digital books and return them so you do not have to purchase every book you read. (You can even borrow e-readers from many libraries!)

Last year e-books accounted for 20% of all book sales. This is the fastest growing part of the publishing industry and everyone who studies this market is responding to this trend in big and creative ways. It is crucial to their corporate survival. Just check out the history of Borders and you will see what I mean about survival and a corporate failure to adjust to these rapid changes. Go into any brick and mortar store and use the dreaded word “Amazon” and watch the response. You had better be prepared for an emotional outburst of some sort.

What are publishers thinking about all of this news? They believe that it is very good news but not for old-fashioned stores. More books than ever are being sold, if you include both print books and e-books in the total. Readers are getting more for less and appear to be reading more in the process.

I was cautious about this data at first but I am not in the group that says going digital means that we’re dumbing down. Actually, I am increasingly convinced of the exact opposite and this is simply more data to support my conclusion. You might prefer paper and you will still get that choice for a long time. But you must realize that how we actually process reading and information has changed on a massive scale and we are not going back to an earlier time in history.

This is all support for the growing evidence that the Internet has profoundly changed how we read, think and even process relationships. It is up to us to maximize these changes for the most good and, if we care about increasing knowledge and the spread of the kingdom of God, how we will reach the most people.

As an old saying goes it is far better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. I work to light candles and this candle, namely how people access information, is not going out! I’m embracing this change with great joy rather than with lament for a bygone era. My life straddles both the old and the new so making this change has not always been easy for me but this revolution is the equivalent of the changes brought about by the “printing press” in the sixteenth century.

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