In August 2012, the internet-based company Amazon announced that its electronic book sales in the UK had overtaken its printed book sales. A similar tipping point had been reached eighteen months earlier in the US market.
E-books are now so popular that Amazon has boldly suggested that we are witnessing 'a renaissance of reading'. Underpinning that claim is the market research finding that British users of the Kindle (Amazon's reading tablet) are buying four times as many books as they did before going electronic. The Kindle has only been available in the UK for two years, however, so those users are necessarily newcomers to the platform. And it's well known that newcomers generally want to build themselves a little electronic library, with which to get started. Whether they will still be buying four times as many books a few years down the line is debatable. Besides, there is a difference between buying more books and reading more books. Many e-book readers report buying electronic copies of old favourites and downloading very cheap titles on a whim, just to see what they're like. In all probability, lots of those books are merely dipped into, left unread, or discarded after a just few pages.
Nevertheless, it's clear that the new platform's arrival is having an effect. Consumers aren't merely rejecting dog-eared paperbacks in favour of shiny tablets, and otherwise carrying on as before. They are changing their habits.
For one thing, e-book readers say that they're more willing to experiment. "Low cost and instant availability have certainly induced me to look at books I would never dream of buying in a bookstore," confirms Professor Albert Jordan, an expert in French literature. "I'll sometimes read pleasurable trash, for instance, which I can afterwards delete from my device with no pangs of conscience at having thrown out a print book."
Attractive pricing is also inducing many downloaders to read more literature from previous eras. "Access to books long out of print and out of copyright is just wonderful for an inveterate reader like me," enthuses Jordan. Musician and booklover Tim Phillips takes a similar view: "I think I've read a lot more classics since I got the Kindle. I've always read a lot of Victorian novels, but now I'm reading even more, simply because they're cheap." Both Jordan and Phillips say that they sometimes download weighty tomes, which they already own in print, but enjoy being able to carry around and dip into whenever they please.
Although unlikely companions for Dickens and Balzac, it seems that erotic novelists such as EL James and Kitty von Klass are also gaining from the e-publishing boom. People who would feel uncomfortable buying an explicit paperback in a shop or reading it on the tube have no qualms about downloading erotica and hitting the 'Off' button when the in-laws drop by. A recent survey found that a third of tablet owners secretly read soft porn, and that nearly as many privately indulge other 'embarrassing' interests, such as children's literature or futuristic fantasy writing.
Habitual readers may be reading more, then, and are certainly becoming less inhibited, more exploratory and more whimsical in their habits. However, it's hard to find evidence that more people are reading. In 2012, five years into the Kindle era, the average American spent 107 hours reading books – almost exactly the same as a decade earlier.
Part of the explanation for the static levels of book reading is likely to be that quite a lot of people can't read, or have difficulty reading – one in six in the UK, according to the National Literacy Trust. Many more are temperamentally disinclined to read. "I didn't read any books last year," concedes Richard Bustos, a 34-year-old project manager. "I'd rather spend my leisure time in the pool."
Bustos isn't alone. Back in 2003, a survey by The Jenkins Group found that a third of American high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives. Numerous commentators have disputed that figure, but what isn't arguable is that reading books just doesn't appeal to a significant slice of the population.
People who don't read because they can't read, or because they don't like reading, aren't likely to modify their ways when the words move from a printed page to an electronic viewer.
Book-reading is something that educated people do more than early school-leavers, that wealthy people do more than the poor and that children and mature adults do more than young adults. So far, there's no sign of any of that changing. In fact, a case can be made for saying that migration to electronic platforms is liable to entrench those patterns and harden the divide between readers and non-readers.
"My friend Charlie has only read one book in all the years I've known her," observes care home worker Martha Slingerland. "And I don't suppose she'll read another, if that means buying a fancy gadget, or if paper books soar in price as print runs decline."
Along with all the people who are book-averse, there are plenty who are technology-averse. Helen Goodman – a woman with enough drive and ability to have been elected to the British Parliament – recently said in a public debate, “The minute you talk about downloading … my brain goes bzzzz.”
Once a person has crossed the threshold of the e-book world, he or she has access to a vast array of marvellous literature. Much of that literature – particularly the copyright-expired material – is extraordinarily cheap, or even free. As time goes by, modern bestsellers are also likely to fall in price.
However, there is a threshold. Unless you have a reading tablet or another suitable device, and unless you 'get on' with such things, you can't enjoy the riches of this new world. Electronic gadgetry is constantly getting cheaper and easier to use, but it will never be free and its acquisition and mastery will always be too much trouble for some. Book reading may become easier and cheaper for many, yet increasingly alien to others.
Tasks and Activities
- In your own words, summarise the reasons for the popularity of e-books that are mentioned in the article.
- Do you have an e-book reader yourself? If not, would you like to have one? Explain your answer. What types of literature have become more popular since e-books were introduced?
- Do you see it as a good thing or a bad thing that those types of literature are becoming more popular? Explain your answer.
- There are many people who rarely or never read books. In your own words, summarise the reasons that are mentioned in the article.
- Immediately beneath the subheading 'Persistent patterns', the article mentions three 'pairs' of social groups who tend to differ in their reading habits. Identify the three pairs and suggest why their habits differ.
- Why might book reading become "increasingly alien" to some people?
The words / expressions in the left hand column all appear in the article. Match them with the correct synonym / explanation:
- To concede Experienced
- Seductive To rise
- Acquisition To encourage
- Liable Plentiful
- To induce Reserved
- On a whim To admit
- To entrench Buying or taking possession
- Inveterate To lay off
- To discard Do something on an impulse
- Abound To widen the gap
- To soar Tempting
- Inhibited Likely to
To concede - to admit
Seductive - tempting
Acquisition - buying or taking possession
Liable - likely to
To induce - to encourage
On a whim - do something on an impulse
To entrench - to widen the gap
Inveterate - experienced
To discard - to lay off
Abound - plentiful
To soar - to rise
Inhibited - reserved
2 Find out More
- Find out what Kindle Direct Publishing is. Summarise how the scheme works in no more than a hundred words.
- In the UK, one person in six apparently has difficulty reading. Try to find literacy figures for other countries. Briefly compare the UK with other European countries, and/or Europe with other regions.
- The article mentions Charles Dickens. Who was he? What kind of books did he write?
- When it isn't used as a product name, what does the word 'kindle' mean? Try to find 'real-world' examples of the word being used in different ways.
- Find out where the town of Hay-on-Wye is and what it is famous for. How might it be affected by the growing popularity of e-books?
The Culture of the Web GenerationKjernestoff
Crime on TV - To Catch a Killer at all CostsKjernestoff
From Soap Operas to Teen DramaKjernestoff
Trends in TV dramasKjernestoff
Songs of DiscontentKjernestoff
Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen - Rock PoetsKjernestoff
Poetry Meets RockKjernestoff
Times They are a Changin’: Music and ChangeKjernestoff
West Side StoryKjernestoff
John Lennon - Working Class HeroKjernestoff
The Best Rock Artists EverKjernestoff
Gangs - Safety in Numbers?TilleggsstoffTilleggsstoff
Youth Culture TasksKjernestoff
From Soap Opera to Teen Drama - VocabularyKjernestoff
Hollywood/Bollywood Film QuizKjernestoff
Tasks to The World of TV SeriesKjernestoff
Visit a Cathedral - St. Giles' in EdinburghKjernestoff
Paul Simon: American TuneKjernestoff
American Tune - Lyrics QuizKjernestoff
American Tune - Vocabulary task 1Kjernestoff
American Tune - Vocabulary task 2Kjernestoff
Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen - TasksKjernestoff
John Lennon - TasksKjernestoff
Youth Culture Comprehension - Part 1TilleggsstoffTilleggsstoff
Youth Culture Comprehension - Part 2TilleggsstoffTilleggsstoff
Gang Crime in St. PaulTilleggsstoffTilleggsstoff