The Future of Books and Reading

The presentation of the HD Reader, along with the growing significance of audiobooks–which have been around for much longer–leads us to a natural question: what is reading? Does it include these new technological steps where we listen and imagine instead of literally looking at the words on a page? Or is this something else entirely?

It’s kind of a cheap answer, but I think it all depends on how you define “reading.” Consider that one of the things many teachers and scholars say is that reading is good for your brain because it exercises your imagination. In that sense, it is the act of imagining that functions as the “reading,” and audiobooks have the same effect. We hear things instead of reading them, sure, but we still see them in our heads, so the mental part is definitely present. On the other hand, when we describe children listening to stories read by parents, we don’t think of them as “readers.” We think of them as “being read to.” We say that reading to our children is healthy because it helps children learn how to read, not because it’s actually reading.

But something interesting to note about this phenomenon that I’ve heard comparatively little about is how it’s possible to read words without actually reading. See, I’m someone easily distracted by his own wandering thoughts. Therefore, even as a grade school student, I could be sitting there staring at the pages, going through the words, but not get anything from them. This frequently led me to have to reread pages over and over again, and by the end of a month, I’d be lucky if I’d finished 100 pages of a story. Now I could have continued “reading” in spite of having gained nothing from the words and I can assure everyone that I’d have finished tons of books by now, but that isn’t really what we think of as “reading,” is it? To read, one must also be paying attention and follow the story. When we think of it this way, it could be argued–assuming it is easier to pay attention to a speaking voice than to words on a page–that some people “read” better with audiobooks than with written text.

So that leaves us with the big question that we started with: what is reading? If you were to put a gun to my head and demand I tell you exactly what I thought constituted “reading” and what didn’t, I’d probably call either the cops or a psychologist as you would clearly need some medical attention. But assuming that option was off the table, I’d say that I think the answer is smack dab in the middle of it all. To read the actual text constitutes “technical reading” regardless of whether you pay attention, and to pay attention as you read constitutes both “technical” and “mental” reading. Audiobooks constitute “mental reading,” but not “technical reading.”

The HD Reader is some combination of all of those that will allow more people to get involved in the market, whether that’s through the more technical avenues of reading or the more mental aspects of reading.
Regardless of what we call reading or not, what I believe is that we’ll move farther away from the “technical” aspects of reading over the next few years and farther into the “mental” realm of reading. Why? Because it’s easier to listen while we do our chores than it is to sit still and stare at a page. The latter can even be sleep-inducing, while the former keeps us wide awake. Call it better or worse, but that is the future I see for reading.

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