Ending the snobbery of reading?

Ending the snobbery of reading?

Serious readers think they are better than everybody else.

Of course, they probably are. ;) Reading enables you to expand your experience base in a safe, hyper-accelerated way compared to real life. It isn’t just that you can find out about aardvarks in Africa, or marriage traditions in Malaysia…you get to see things from the perspective of other people, be they actual contemporary thinkers, historical figures, or fictional characters.

All of this low-risk enrichment gives a reader the ability to better predict the impact of what they do in the world outside of books.

Governments have recognized this fact, and have, in some cases, made it illegal  to teach the disempowered to read and write. That was true in the United States, when laws prevented giving the tool of literacy to slaves, perhaps out of concern that they would use that tool to reshape the status quo. Whether it’s preventing an “under class” from reading at all, or choosing what is available for them to read (as was done in the Soviet Union), this widespread strategy is still in use today…and shows that those in power recognize that books are a path to equality.

Outside of governments, upper social classes have also wanted to make the neighborhood of literature a gated community. In some cases, that was actual restriction of distribution. In others, it was making books expensive…especially books seen to be of particular value. It might be acceptable to have the denigratingly called “penny dreadfuls” read by the “working class” and poor, but mind-expanding books were bound in leather and stamped in gold, out of the economic reach of all but the rich.

It’s also been possible to use social pressure to discourage reading. If someone always has their “nose stuck in a book”, that was a reason for dismissal from social events.

E-books are changing all that.

In a much bigger way than paperbacks (which had some of the same effect in the last century), the way that e-books are immediately available, conveniently accessible, and often free, is democratizing reading in a way never seen before.

It’s not just that people are reading more…it’s that more people are reading.

This was made glaringly clear at Thursday’s announcement of new hardware and Kindle services by Amazon.

Jeff Bezos told us that Kindle owners read many times as many books as they did before they owned Kindles…more than four and a half times as many in 2011.

Simple math tells us that it isn’t all serious readers.

If you were already reading one hundred books a year, you don’t jump to five hundred with a Kindle. If you were reading one book a year, though, you might jump to five books a year.

That type of average growth can only come from people who were at best casual readers.

I think we’ll see that leveling of the reading field happening even more with the lower price of tablets which incorporate reading as part of their entertainment palette.

For $159 (less than some EBRs…E-Book Readers, which most benefit serious readers), you can get a tablet from Amazon:

Kindle Fire 7″ SD

So, someone who mostly watches TV and plays games has books available to them…instantly, in the same place.

This summer, the Olympics were solidly front and center in the public awareness. Someone who doesn’t normally read a book probably wouldn’t have gone to a brick-and-mortar store to buy a book on it, or even ordered a paperbook online. However, if they can simply click and read the book (again, in the same screen where they watch their favorite shows) I think they might do that.

Making reading part of what the mass population does changes the world.

What would it mean if everybody in America read at least five books a year? How would that change the way they saw society and the world?

I can’t wait to find out.

What do you think? Am I exaggerating the value of what is at heart a distribution system? Will multimedia content make books more accessible…but less life-affecting? Will the digital divide simply strengthen class separation in readers, rather than weakening it? Is the love of a well-made paperbook more about respecting the author than keeping it out of the hands of others? Can reading reinforce prejudices (if you only read books from one viewpoint) rather than expanding acceptance? Does having fewer sources of books (a few online retailers, rather than thousands of individual brick-and-mortar stores) dangerously concentrate who decides which books are available? Are there books (or genres) that make people less powerful by giving them a falsely fictionalized view of reality? Feel free to let me and my readers know by commenting on this post.

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog.

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12 Responses to “Ending the snobbery of reading?”

  1. Lona Jennings Says:

    I have a relative who has been most of her life an indifferent reader (I have always been a voracious reader). She recently bought an IPad and I added her to my Kindle account where I have thousands of books, mostly bought for free. She tells me that she now reads several books a month. What she comments on is the fact that she has all of her books with her all of the time. No decisions about what to carry, etc. Same for me. In other words, I think CONVENIENCE OF CHOICE is the big factor with e-book revolution. Same as for online movie and music streaming. What you want whenever you want it and wherever you are. With that said, my relative reads the same genre she’s always read (romance) just a lot more of it. IMHO, E-books are providing another distribution channel, and, in the grand tradition of the internet, a proletarian level channel where everyone has dreams, information and opinions to share and wants to make a few dollars in the process.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Lona!

      Yes, that’s a great example! Your relative may have increased reading 4.62 times, meeting the average that Jeff cites…without even owning a Kindle.

      The point about being able to share libraries is a good one. I think that’s really underestimated. I polled my readers some time back about that…my guess is that there are more readers per purchase with e-books than with p-books (paperbooks).

  2. Man in the Middle Says:

    One of the things I like best about getting Ebooks from Amazon, as opposed to seeking them physically in a bookstore is that instead of filtering by the staff as to what books are showcased, based on what THEY like, Amazon offers me books based on what I like. My only problem in this regard is that I share our one account with my wife, who likes fantasy and Christian romance but not computers, economics, politics, or theology. Fortunately, we both like Sci Fi, (especially the new subcategory of Christian Sci Fi.) Too bad there isn’t a way to aim suggestions at individual within a family account.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Man!

      At some point, they are going to have to figure out some way to do sub-accounts, I think. My adult kid and I run into the same thing with Netflix and recommendations. :)

  3. rogerknights Says:

    Looks like Steve Jobs was wrong. (“Nobody reads anymore.”)

    Looks like Bezos is a sly one. Previously (when the Fire came out) he’d implied that it would be nuts to go head to head with Apple. And before that he’d said (when the K1 came out) that the Kindle was meant specifically for “serious readers” and that color, etc. didn’t matter to them. It’s possible that he had big plans all along, and made those statements as camouflage, at least in part.

    Casual book-readers weren’t previously non-readers. They were likely mostly readers of magazines and newspapers. Those are low-cost items that don’t clutter up one’s home, because they will be tossed. E-books are also low cost and space-efficient. Those are part of their appeal, not just convenience.

    “It might be acceptable to have the denigratingly called “penny dreadfuls” [and "dime novels"--RK] read by the “working class” and poor, but mind-expanding books were bound in leather and stamped in gold, out of the economic reach of all but the rich.”

    That reminds me that Teddy Roosevelt, whom you quoted a few weeks ago, was pretty snooty about “Bel Ami,” the “Peyton Place” of its day.

    I suspect that “immersive reading” will draw in people who are semi-literate, over time. Especially if reading assignments in schools specify such books, which will accustom them to such material. Immersive reading could actually be used to TEACH reading. The voice-over would function as virtual training wheels. Amazon ought to look into verifying this potential, and then exploit it in their sales pitches to schools.

  4. T. Says:

    I almost did not buy a Kindle because I did not think I was a serious enough reader. I read at most maybe four books in a year when I bought a Kindle but now I have definitely started reading more books. I would say I read at least twelve books in a year now. I read lots of blogs, newspapers and magazines on the Kindle Fire but I still prefer to read books on my Kindle Keyboard. I feel like I can read faster on the Kindle than from a paperbook and I prefer e-books over p-books now.

  5. Judy Chapman Says:

    Hi Bufo,

    You have raised many thought provoking comments in this article. However I am not so sure that ebook readers actually encourage people to read more. Do ebook readers actually read all those books or are some readers just collectors of free books? I have owned ereaders from the beginning and absolutely would not go back to paperback or hard cover books but at the same time I have been pretty disappointed when I found out that the ebook I read did not contain all those great pictures that were in the paper books. (i.e. “Lost in Shangrila”).

    I believe that books are the key to world peace. Books educate us in all sorts of necessary and entertaining ways. I truly believe that EBR’s are here to stay and will eventually be responsible for the demise of most books stores. At the same time, I hope some specialty book retailers will survive. I still prefer buying art books, recipe books , travel books and the like in paper form.

    Books are the best way to improve lives and I support any organization that distributes free books to those most in need such as “Books for America”.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Judy!

      I thought about that question (is it “buying and downloading” versus “reading”), and my thought is that Amazon would be careful about that…although they certainly sometimes say things that they have to clarify later.

      Amazon could get at reading stats through polling. We can indicate whether we have finished reading a book or not at Amazon, but I don’t think many people do that (it obviously can’t do it automatically on paperbooks).

      I do think some p-book stores will survive…with much higher prices per unit. They will likely become much more of an upper class place, as they used to be, and used bookstores will especially see an increase.

      It’s interesting: with the first Kindle, people mentioned those categories as “never” being good on EBRs (E-Book Readers).

      Eventually, and not far away, I think those are among the books that are much better as e-books. The image on an iPhone is better than you can possibly see…the reproduction may be better than what you see in a glossy paper book. When you see art in a museum, you often change your position to view it from a different angle (or closer and farther)…that virtual option will be there. You will also likely be able to actually project it on a wall, making it easier for people with some vision issues.

      Recipe books with video seem inevitable…showing people actually how much the amount is, showing how to perform a particular technique (“mince”, “baste”) will expand their reach to those who aren’t as familiar with the kitchen. A virtual guarantee to me would seem to be an ability to “deep dive” into the nutritional values and health risks of the ingredients…but only if you wanted to do that. Having an e-recipe book that knows you are a diabetic, and adjusts the recipes seamlessly to be appropriate would save lives.

      Travel books are another good example. I have an app on my Fire now that shows me webcams around the world. How great would it be to be reading about an off-the-track location and be able to see it…live? Direct booking is another killer app…you read about a hotel, choose it…and click and book right then. Special needs would be served especially well with e-travel books. Need wheelchair access, non-smoking, vegetarian, dog-friendly places? The book could adjust for you…and you wouldn’t have to be thinking about it on every listing. The book could also change as the actual local prices change…no outdated information.

      All of this on a screen that could be bigger, brighter, and more colorful…and weigh less while being more accessible.

      E-books still have a lot of room for growth. :)

      As to distributing free books to those in need, that’s yet another spot where e-books can be much better. I’ve written a number of times about WorldReader.org, which uses EBRs to bring books to disadvantaged, rural areas. It’s much cheaper to install satellite based internet and use give them EBRs than it is to truck giant boxes of heavy paper books.

      I appreciate your enthusiasm for books and the difference they can make!

  6. Bailey Says:

    Hi Bufo,

    This is unrelated to the article, but I just received many price drop notifications from ereaderiq. None of them were major, but when I checked the links, all were from HyperCollins and none of them said ‘This price was set by the publisher’ :)
    Nothing concrete, but I’d say that’s a good sign, wouldn’t you?

  7. Zebras Says:

    I have a friend who 30 years after high school ended will still remind me that I was a little (maybe a lot!) insufferable over my reading abilities back then. She remembers me bragging about how many times I read Gone With the Wind. Well, I don’t think I was a snob about reading, I think it was the ONE thing I was good at. After all she’s the one who became a doctor.

    I definitely find those who read, whatever the material, much more open-minded than those who don’t. Here’s hoping that the generation of Harry Potter readers who may not have become readers without that impetus, will grow up to be a more aware generation!

  8. tuxgirl Says:

    I find it interesting that for some people, the fire increased their reading. I certainly had my reading increase with my e-ink readers, but I found that my reading decreased with my fire. (almost as much as it decreased when I started helping on the kindle help forum!) I find that with the fire, it’s so easy to sometimes go off and play games instead of reading.

    I do find that the eink kindles give me the ability to read at times when I wouldn’t be able to with a paper book. For example, when my little one was younger and still nursing, I regularly would have my kindle there because there’s just not a whole lot else that you *can* do with a nursing baby!

    I think Amazon probably does use “read” instead of “buy” for their statistics, otherwise they would definitely have skewed results. Most of the polls I’ve seen about ereaders discuss reading habits for how much you do, and buying habits in terms of the prices you’re willing to pay.

    It would be interesting to see how the “average” kindle owner has changed across the years since the K1 first released. It feels to me that there was a shift around the release of the K4/Touch/Fire grouping where at least on the forums we seem to see a lot more casual readers asking questions on the forums. I’m guessing that’s because the Fire pulled in more casual readers (or non-readers), and the K4 was low-enough in price that a lot of people gave them to casual readers (or younger people) as gifts, whereas prior to that point, the price-point of the kindles were high enough that people wouldn’t buy the kindle unless the person using it was a serious reader.

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