The Demise of Reading – myth or reality?

Reading-Owl

I was on Indiblogger just this morning and happened to see an IndiSpire prompt that went as follows:

‘Reading books has reduced dramatically in today’s youth. Kids who read books are treated as socially incapable nerds. What is your take on this topic?’

This took me back a few weeks when my editor and I were talking about the future of books. She told me the story of her niece who grew up in a family of readers and yet now doesn’t have the time to read. Though she had been a keen reader during her early teens, now she just has enough interest for Facebook and games on her phone. My editor did not quite come out and say that reading is dying as a habit, but I could hear the despondency in her words. ‘Books are dying,’ she seemed to say. ‘How will our kids learn to read books with all these distractions about?’

On the other hand…

We’re all reading and writing much more today than we were ten years ago. All communication has moved to the written form. We write more emails, send more texts, exchange more ‘instant messages’ today than we’d ever done in our history. On the internet, by last count there are 200 million websites with ‘content’ in them. This is content that someone or the other is writing, and someone or the other is reading. Even if we conservatively assume that a mere 1% of them are active or good, that’s still 2 million websites churning out things for people to read.

Amazon, one of the world’s biggest companies today, deals exclusively in books. Every business worth mentioning has a blog. Every freelancer serious about building a personal brand must ‘engage’ and ‘be social’. Which are newfangled words for what were once ‘reading’ and ‘writing’. Because after all, what is a blog post but a piece of writing? And what is ‘engagement’ if not reading comments and responding to them? What is ‘being social’ in our world but writing something onto a screen for someone else to read?

Are we just switching to a different medium?

Books used to be the carriers of content a generation ago, and if you wanted to feel the touch of another person’s mind over yours, a book used to be the best device. But today you can write intimate letters to strangers across the world at the touch of a button. You can get instant feedback on your thoughts and opinions, and you can participate in global debates without so much as leaving your desk.

Those of us who have grown up on books will doubtless feel wistful about this. Those of us who write them, perhaps even more so. But there’s nothing to fear. If anything, the hunger for words, for stimulation and for thoughts is only going to grow deeper in coming years, as the internet marches on relentlessly in a bid to shrink the world to the size of a dot. If we stop writing or reading books, and if books eventually die, we won’t even notice it because something else will have already taken its place.

So it doesn’t bother me too much, this death of the book, because all evidence suggests that reading and writing are thriving. So those of us who love to read and write can only have a good time of it. I will go as far as to say, in fact, that if you’re a writer, these are perhaps the most exciting times in which to be alive.

Reading is just for nerds? Not any more.

As for the second part of the post, where it says ‘kids who read books are treated as socially incapable nerds’, when was it ever different? At least now, reading and writing are acknowledged to be necessary skills rather than as ‘nerd traits’. Today, one can say one is a blogger without having to cower in shame. When I introduce myself as an author, no one gives me pitying glances or smiles. (Well, almost no one.) Everyone is expected to read and write well. They’re now survival skills.

If that is not cause for a victory dance in the nerds’ camp, then what is?

Image Courtesy: Philip Vickers

Comments

  1. I don’t know about kids, but I started reading so much more once I bought a Kindle. I think, there are two factors: Accessibility and Time. While the second depends on one’s situation, technology is definitely making accessibility better by the day.

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    • Yes, Rajesh. The other side is that with accessibility, the ‘noise’ levels have increased, and it has become harder to stand out from the group. But we have to take either this or that. Can’t have it both ways, I guess.

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  2. As usual there are points that i agree on and points where i disagree as well. While the shift in medium as you pointed out is happening quite definitely and no one can deny that – is it equivalent to “reading” and “writing”? Yes – there are many who are writing and many who are reading and responding but what is being written and being read? Everyone’s two-liners – a large percentage of which is trivial like “Just woke up.. or this viral is killing me… or Achhe din aa gaye… for who Mr Modi types. Or maybe Raghu is watching Federer vs Djokovic with an additional update: WOW What a Match Joker. Bad luck FedEx. And then someone replies “But Fed Ex is in a class of his own.” Is this what “reading” and “writing” is all about? Yes Reading and Writing still – but where is the content??? And that too with all those SMS lingos… Agreed that one will not be ashamed to say one is a writer now… but many professions have got their due but that doesnt mean that they are all thriving. So maybe your editor does have a point.

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    • Hi Raghu,

      Yes, I agree that the content that we’re reading and writing is not perhaps the same as the content we used to read and write in a previous generation. In my personal opinion I think the ‘quality’ of content has gone down too. But who is to judge quality? In a democratic world (and social media is democratic if nothing else), whatever the masses decide is good is good. We either play the game or we sit out.

      I think even for those who are writing ‘good’ content, the task of finding readers and interacting with them has become a lot easier. So while the book may die out, I think reading and writing will thrive deep into the future, at least in terms of quantity. We can only hope that it will produce some quality along the way 🙂

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      • Thanks Sharath. The comment that i made was w.r.t to social media and the quality there. AM sure all of us have wondered what the hell when we read many posts. Yes – one cant be judgemental about ‘quality’ – it could mean different things to different people. Just like the definition for “cinema” changes from person to person. As for the physical book dying out … i just remember all the myths that came up with the explosion of satellite television. people saying newspaper and magazines will die. but they still continue to be a force – the extent of influence or power could have changed but they have not died. Btw – am also the physical book kind – have never ever managed to read off a comp. The smell of a physical book, flipping pages, and why – even the small act of bending the edges when you have stopped on a page as a bookmark is pleasurable.

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      • I’m on the fence with regards to whether the book will die out or whether there will be an equilibrium point. I guess only time will tell. I am sure the market is big enough to accommodate all of us 🙂

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  3. I can’t read a book unless I have it in my hand. I can’t even read two pages on the laptop or on a kindle. It just doesn’t feel like reading to me. Or maybe it is just me.

    I still read books and the original ones. I hate reading pirated ones as they feel so fake and put me off. I collect old books from shutting down libraries where you get they at a steal. I once got six of John Grisham originals for 70 bucks each!

    No matter what technology comes up, until I have my sight, I will read books. And continue to but them. No kindle or anything can replace the joy of that!

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    • Yes, I think those of us who have grown up with books are attached to them. And maybe that attachment will persist for some of us. But if we look at kids of today who are growing up with smart devices and Kindles. Reading on the screen is natural to them. So I think reading and ‘content’ will continue to live. Only the medium will change. The physical book may go away in a few years, but there’s nothing sad in that. The book has always been just the medium. What’s important is the stuff between the covers.

      But on an emotional level, I agree with you. Nothing beats a book.

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  4. I personally have started reading more and more nowadays with the advent of the Kindle as a reading device. And with the feed aggregators in vogue, I read more and more of Indian as well as world news nowadays when compared to years when I had to rely on newspapers.

    That being said, the truth is that there is so much competition by other sources for my attention and eyeballs that at times reading does take a backseat.

    But to make a statement like “reading is dead, long live reading” is taking it a little too far. As long as there will be an appreciation of the fine arts and of writing, both creative and academic, there will always be books and readers albeit in different forms I guess.

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    • Yes, the proliferation of ‘content’ on the internet is in itself testament to the fact that people are hungry to read. Now the kind of reading they do and the kind of things they read may not be to our personal taste, but that’s just the way it is, I suppose. Change is never comfortable.

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  5. U have presented the idea behind the issue on Books very well. I also feel we have inched more towards a diff kind of communication-reading & writing ways. I still love to collect books, so that I can read them in leisure again & again. Books–there is so much variety, I feel there’s so much to read, to share to be told & to be asked 🙂 good wishes.

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    • I agree, Ruchi. What do you think of e-books, though? You can carry a thousand books in one device. If variety is what you like, that’s a gold mine. Or do you not like reading on the screen as much as you do reading printed words on paper?

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      • Sharath, honestly am old school 🙂 I love reading actual books, I don’t have any e-book collections be it free or provided at ease, even my elder daughter has beautiful collections of her fav books as she is old enough to choose her genre, younger one is happy with e-books though.I still love to visit our local library to hunt for books I look forward to read & sometimes at library sales, I get good books at very good price, so I always pick them up. 🙂

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    • Excellent signs, Parwati. I tend to agree with you. I think reading has exploded on the up-side in different formats and through different media. It makes me excited as a creator of content to be in this era where I have so many options through which I can share my writing. I can write a blog, participate in debates (through the written form) on Facebook, publish and e-book, and if I still want to hold my own book in my hand, pursue traditional publishing.

      The point you make about vernacular reading is great, too. There are such gems in regional languages in India that just don’t deserve to die. But we’ll have to see how that goes. I predict there will be a boom in regional literature jumping onto digital platforms in the next ten years. And I think that’s an excellent thing.

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    • Read your POV… good points you have made. There’s hope…

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Trackbacks

  1. […] those within the publishing industry. By all accounts, writers have it made. As I pointed out in one of my earlier posts, it does seem like it’s a good time to be a writer. Not only with blogs and social media […]

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  2. […] anymore and the general state of affairs in the world of books is quite sorry. We are very quick to blame the advent of the internet and the ever-decreasing amount of time in people’s hands for […]

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