Toward a new definition of reading

The advent of the e-reader has provoked a kind of backlash among a good many dedicated readers.  It’s not real reading they say.  It doesn’t smell like a book, it doesn’t feel like a book, you can’t hear the pages turn.  All of which are true, but meaningless in terms of what a book really is.  It’s a delivery system.  Humans have used many different delivery systems to convey their ideas.  The earliest was almost certainly story-telling, probably around a fire, maybe in a cave.  Stories of the hunt, stories of gods and men, stories that explained  the seasons or where the game was, or what thunder and lightning really was.

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By MarianoOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

And then there were cave paintings which also told stories, though I’m pretty sure that we aren’t capable of getting their full meaning.  But I am sure they were meant to convey ideas, either to other humans, or to the gods of nature.

Eventually we began to create alphabets to convey ideas in a more permanent and less obviously symbolic form.  We wrote on clay, stone, papyrus, silk… whatever was handy, whatever would allow our words to go on after we stopped speaking, perhaps after the story-teller was gone from this earth.  We read from scrolls, illuminated manuscripts and hand-written books filled with handmade paper.  Books were labor-intensive and those which didn’t belong to the church or the government, belonged to the very wealthy.

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By Adrian Pingstone (User:Arpingstone) – Own work, Public Domain, Link


Woodblock printing, which had its origin in Asia, was used to make multiple copies of images or text, but it was also labor-intensive, and not much used in the west.  However, when Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1440, things changed for the better, at least in my opinion, because it opened the door for the common person to access the information that had previously been hard, if not impossible to obtain.

Amazon Digital Trends

Printed books dominated reading for more than 500 years, and so every other form of conveying information was moved to the side, given its own category.  Only printed books really counted as reading.  Five hundred years of dominance doesn’t let go easily, so when digital text, or e-readers began to appear on the scene, readers balked.  E-books weren’t real books, they said, but if you asked them why, their response would be “because they don’t smell like real books.” or “because they don’t feel like real books.”  The answers were disconnected from content, and bordered on being fetish-y, as if in secret they rubbed paperbacks on their naked bodies, or buried their faces between pages and breathed in the scent of ink and paper rather than actually reading what was printed on that paper with that ink.

When I’m confronted by the book-sniffers, I always ask which is more important to them, books or what’s printed in them?  Sometimes I get an honest answer, sometimes a dishonest one.  One person said, “Oh shut up,” though she said it with good humor because she knew what it was I was saying to her:  It doesn’t matter.

These same people wouldn’t say that audiobooks aren’t real because they’re aware that the blind reader relies on them as much as on braille texts.  I sometimes point out that the ability to scale the typefaces on e-readers helps people who are not blind but who do normally require large-print books, to access whatever text they want.

I sometimes point out that books are heavy and some of us have trouble holding them for long periods because of ailments like carpal tunnel syndrome.  I point out that some of us don’t have unlimited space in our homes but our e-readers and the clouds where we can store them offer us virtually unlimited space for digital texts.  I point out a lot of advantages to both digital texts and audiobooks.  Sometimes it makes a dent, sometimes not, and when it doesn’t, I understand that the person I’m talking to has invested much too heavily in the idea of physical books.  I don’t pretend to know why people do that, it seems so limiting to me.  What I do know is that at 55 I began to read digital texts.  At 63 I started listening to audiobooks.  I read a lot now, and I cherish every format because they give me what I want most: information.

While I wouldn’t dream of telling anyone how they should read (though I wish I could escape the feeling that I’m being told my choices are somehow bad or just not quite the thing, don’tcha know?) I can’t help but feel that we need to broaden our definition of what reading is to encompass the different ways in which the contents of a book can be delivered to us.  While I hope and pray that the printed page persists well into the future because yes, physical books are wonderful.  I wouldn’t dream of denying that.  I think the printed book has been the only game in town for a long time, and it’s going to have to stand aside a little and let its younger siblings have their share of our reading time, just as scrolls and tablets and illuminated manuscripts had to step aside and allow Gutenberg’s invention to bring books to the people.

Reading is what you need it to be.  Books, e-readers, audiobooks, hell even a cereal box is worth reading for a reader.  It’s what brings those stories to you.  In the end, what you hold in your hand is your own story-teller, sharing the tales of gods and men.

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