The Future of Books: An Anecdote

The other day, a friend who is an editor at a large publisher and the parent of a small child came over for coffee.  Of course, the talk ran to books.  “How many did you get rid of when you moved?” she asked, and we discussed storing them, keeping them, not keeping them, what books we’d read digitally and when we preferred physical books.

She said something that struck me as profound.  Her three-year-old is completely digitally native, and knows her way around a smartphone better than either parent.  My friend said that she had no trouble with the idea that her child had to demand attention from a parent absorbed in reading the paper; that situation is as old as the newspaper itself.  But she suddenly realized that her daughter lived in a world where all adults’ attention was narrowed down to a 4″ screen, with everyone looking down at a small black object all the time instead of engaging with the world.

I was struck by complexity of that image. Reading – whether books, magazines or paper, opens up the world to us, and the image of narrowing down one’s vision to a small handheld device.  Of course, immersive reading always means losing awareness of your surroundings so that the world becomes what you are reading, and having this experience does not require a physical book.  But a child (or anyone else in the room) cannot readily distinguish between an adult reading the newspaper on their phone, or a book, to checking email or Facebook.  Does this matter?  Perhaps not at all, but my friend decided it mattered enough to revive her paper subscription to the New York Times so that her daughter had a way of knowing what was engaging Mommy and Daddy.

Of course, we live in a world where we can make choices, and it does not need to be all physical book or all digital. Physical books have the advantage of tangibility and a more complete engagement that involves the physical way we move through it, turning pages, instinctively remembering if a passage is on the left hand page or on the right; we can thumb or flip back and forth in search of a passage much more easily.  Digital has the advantage of greater potential interactivity, with links and multimedia, portability, and price.  The advantages for “consumable” books – commercial fiction and non-fiction, and reference books, are easy to recognize.  But that metaphorical difference is something I had not thought about before, and now I can’t get it out of my head.

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