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Experts say reading still speaks volumes

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Anyone reading between the covers knows the shelf life of books has changed, and now there’s 
a new digital bestseller—the eBook.

Will books and the printed word survive? Yes, say Toronto-based celebrated author Margaret Atwood and “Wired” magazine editor-in-chief Chris Anderson, keynote speakers for the Future of Reading symposium which will be held at RIT from June 9-12.

They will be joining renowned experts in publishing, language, literature, graphic arts, typography, media technologies and library science—to discuss how technology’s new digital formats can lead to a possible shift in the way we read and communicate.

“Books are not dying; more were published last year than 10 years before,” says Atwood, who has written more than 40 books. “And the Toronto library system is enormously used; it’s the second most used library in North America.”

“So it’s not reading that’s dying, it’s not books that are dying, it’s not written texts that are dying—those texts just may be presented in different forms. Reading is far too valuable to human beings to disappear.”

As a master of futuristic plots, Atwood taps into the “what if’s” of societal trends and stretches them to logical and chilling conclusions. In “The Handmaid’s Tale,” her subjugated women cannot hold jobs, make money, read or write, and in “Oryx and Crake” and “The Year of the Flood,” she offers a frightening landscape where science, corporations and society have run amok.

“I call it speculative fiction because I don’t write about anything that hasn’t already happened, somewhere, sometime,” Atwood muses. “It’s not hard to come up with ideas—I read the papers and magazines; I look at what people are inventing.

“As for the future of reading, I say don’t burn books yet. I’m not pleading their venerable history, the beauty of design, the tactility of the page, but three reasons to keep paper books—solar flares, electronic shortages and Internet overload.”

Atwood believes electronic information is very fragile and you can’t trust it; she has two wonderful electric typewriters in her basement in case everything crashes.

“You wouldn’t put your last will and testament on the computer without a backup paper copy and that’s why there will always be books in physical form,” she says.

Although clay tablets, papyrus and parchment were media of the past, Anderson says ink and pixels can live harmoniously side-by-side.

“The book as we know it is not broken,” Anderson says. “ But there are those people who don’t frequent bookstores or libraries; they are of the generation that if it’s not in Google, it doesn’t exist. So digitization brings books into their lives by making it easy.”

Neither Atwood nor Anderson own eBook readers.

“I’m a traditionalist when it comes to books, my house is filled with bookshelves and my five children enjoy them as much as I did when I was their age,” says Anderson, author of “Free: The Past and Future of a Radical Price.” “They read them together, curl up with them, take them to bed, and have an innate sense that books have a differentiated role in an information-glutted landscape and still stand out as a special experience.”

Anderson founded the online site, now a subsidiary of Amazon, which serves as a 
directory of author events and a one-stop tool for authors to market and promote their books. His newest venture is “Wired” magazine’s launch of a tablet-based reading application with Adobe, which comes out this June and promises to be “the game changer.”

“Our long-form journalism, photography, info-graphics and design is lost by the automizing tendency of the Web browser and HTML, so the tablet offers the visual power of print and interactivity to recapture the immersive experience that a print magazine can grant but with the distribution and economic advantages of digital.”

Both authors believe physical and digital books are mutually inclusive and readers will switch back and forth as we do with all other communication devices.

“Books aim to offer depth rather than breadth and a protracted experience rather than a canopy-like skim, so evidence suggests book reading is different than the online reading experience in terms of brain wiring and that on some level, the generation growing up online is losing an aptitude for a deeper, more sustained experience,” Anderson notes.

“Information does train us to focus on superficiality so sometimes we need a vacation from the Web and a book can present that.”

Meanwhile Atwood theorizes a different ending. “Books are something you can still read by candlelight after the grid is blown up. With no television, no computer, no phone, you’ll be glad you kept a few.”