Despite changes in technology, reading remains fundamental Words matter, but they don’t need paper and ink. Now there’s a digital bestseller—the e-book.
Will the printed word survive? Yes, say celebrated author Margaret Atwood and Wired magazine editor-in-chief Chris Anderson, keynote speakers, and others who gathered for RIT’s Future of Reading symposium in June.
The three-day event drew about 300 participants including experts in publishing, language, literature, graphic arts, typography, media technologies and library science. The goal was to explore how technology 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. “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 may just 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 ifs” 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. “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.
“People read e-books because they are cheap and can reach you immediately,” she suggests. “But would you put your will in e-form? Only if you have the brains of a squirrel.”
In agreement was Wired editor Anderson, who said “Kindle is not a superior reading service; it’s a superior delivery service.” And UCLA professor Johanna Drucker, who said e-readers and the Web are simply “competition for the eyeballs” and offer a discontinuous, less immersive reading experience.
RIT experts joined the conversation, including Amit Ray, professor in the College of Liberal Arts, who discussed the worldwide Wikipedia community; Rachel Gootnick of the Open Publishing Lab, who led an interactive session on self-publishing basics; and Scott McCarney of the School of Print Media, who discussed books as objects and bookbinding tools and techniques.
Although some technologies, like papyrus scrolls, may be destined for obsolescence, Anderson believes 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.”
Anderson, author of Free: The Past and Future of a Radical Price, founded the online site BookTour.com. Now a subsidiary of Amazon, the site 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’s launch of a tablet-based reading application with Adobe, which came out in June.
“Our long-form journalism, photography, info-graphics and design is lost by the automizing tendency of the Web browser and HTML,” he says. “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 Anderson and Atwood believe physical and digital books are mutually inclusive and readers will switch back and forth as with all other communication devices.
“Books aim to offer depth rather than bredth 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.
Atwood has another theory. “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.”