Are Books Dead?

by francine Hardaway on November 20, 2007

This week, Amazon released the Kindle, a new eBook reader, to a storm of conflicting opinions in the blogosphere. Me, I usually order everything new under the technological sun, but I didn’t race off to buy a Kindle.  I thought I’d wait this one out.

Was this because of my age, or my fondness for the physical substance of a “real, old-fashioned book”?  I think not. Rather, it was because I discovered something recently about my own “reading” habits that may have made a Kindle redundant.

Three weeks ago, I was sitting on an airplane, listening to my downloaded “Radiohead” album on my laptop. My noise-canceling headphones were out of battery life, so I was stuck with the earbuds from my iPhone, but it was not all that bad.

This was, however, a milestone.  I was on a 4.5-hour flight from Phoenix to Boston and for the first time in my life I had not brought a book on board an airplane.  I have so shifted my habits that I will be listening to what’s on my laptop and writing until the laptop runs out of battery and then I will switch to listening to what’s on my iPhone.  If I get stuck, I will listen to what is being broadcast on the in-flight system or watch the in-flight movie, “Hairspray” for the second time.

Unless you are part of my immediate family, you can never understand the significance of this. I got a Ph.D in English. I majored in modern literature. I had a library that numbered in the thousands, which I dutifully carted from New York to Arizona.

And although in the (first) divorce I left the books with the father of our children, we were on good terms, and if I needed a fix, I could visit the books any time, or borrow them. I never did.

Once the Internet began to make books available online, I realized I would never need them in a library again.  But for a while I still bought them anyway, read them and put them on a shelf.

I don’t do that anymore. I buy books and give them away after I finish them, or leave them on the plane, bus, train, or boat. I notice I’m not alone; there’s a big “Read and Return” program at most airport bookstores. I don’t read printed material at home at all, unless it’s a magazine that comes to me unsolicited (New York magazine did that for six months) or an RSS feed.  The Carnegie Endowment has just issued a report that probably puts me in a class with teen-age boys. They don’t read either. Traditional educators are panicked about this.

Preparing for this trip to California, I didn’t even go so far as to buy a book. There are enough podcasts, Scoble shows, and feeds on my laptop to keep me busy. The only time I might really need a “book” is on takeoff and landing.

The most important lesson for me is that I have shifted from taking in information on paper to taking it in online.   And a lot of it is auditory or as video, an entirely different mode of learning, which I obviously find quite convenient and useful, although it was never offered to me in school. Perhaps I would have liked to listen to all the books I read over the years. Or watch them as movies. I never got the chance until now.

Today’s children are really fortunate. They can learn in so many different modalities, and I think they naturally gravitate to the ones with which they are most comfortable. Maybe when they put those earbuds in, we should not try to discourage them.  Maybe we shouldn’t make them feel bad if they don’t want to “read” a book.

Thoughts?  I know this is controversial. But if my foster kids had been given a chance to be auditory or visual learners, rather than book learners, I think they would be educated to a higher level by now.  They remember everything I have ever told them, and very little that they learned in school. They also remember every detail of the movies and TV shows they’ve seen.

I’m coming to the conclusion that not reading is different from not learning. The Kindle will have to wait.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Jeremy Vaught November 22, 2007 at 5:31 pm

‘Tis true that people learn in different ways. Some visual, some auditory, some hands on. But all things in moderation. I can only listen so much on an airplane or anytime. I haven’t thrown up on an airplane in years, but if I had to listen to PodTech an entire trip, I’m pretty sure I would throw up. (again, all things in moderation)

I merely have a Bachelors of Science and am only 32, but I love reading books. On airplanes, at home, and even waiting in Great Clips to get my hair cut. They don’t rely on batteries, I can get wrapped up in a story to the point I forget the rest of the world is going on around me in a way that no other platform, online or off, has been able to do.

So while you aren’t looking for a Kindle, neither am I, but I’m not giving up on books.

Syven November 27, 2007 at 2:13 pm

Books contain a spirit that machines cannot replicate and in any rush to create new platforms or channels, it does not replace the old.

Hiphop brought back vinyl records to “scratch” but I don’t think the home library is going to be a dinosaur anytime soon, sticking a 100 or 1000 kindles on a bookshelf turns ones home into a shopfront but a 100 or 1000 books that are special to one’s own being carry with it the spirit of the writers one personally appreciates.

That art and human connection within books cannot be replaced by technology but if the Kindle gets rid of reading piles and that stuff we think is necessary as information gluttons, then their is the advantage of a tidier life and that is what e-book readers essentially do as far as I am concerned, they should enable the clean up of clutter, of unnecessary application of paper and that need to access media on the fly.

Books have a life of their own, they are not transient and a truly great book can be read at various times in ones life time and reveal new things and new insights, all because our maturity level sees more, recognizes more and so we essentially grow up with the books that serves our awareness and contribution to existence.


francine hardaway November 27, 2007 at 2:34 pm

Actually I agree. I didn’t buy a Kindle. But I do think schoolkids can benefit from them, because they are now ruining their backs carrying backpacks. If I had a young child in school, I’d buy him/her a Kindle :-)

Loren Heiny November 28, 2007 at 2:25 pm

After reading with the Kindle a bit, the big advantage I see is that I can pick up a new book easily. More than once I’ve “decided” to purchase and read a particular book, but never got around to taking the trip to the bookstore to pick it up or even order it online. Ultimately, will I purchase more books with Kindle than otherwise? We’ll have to see.

In terms of the device itself, I look down the road a bit when eBook devices will have enough horsepower to play videos and support interactive content. Static book content will still have its place and the arguments will continue over whether a hardcopy or softcopy is better for reading. However, for dynamic content the equation changes.

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