Monday, July 18, 2011

Reading changing habits: How we read now

July 17, 2011|By Amanda Katz, Globe Correspondent

This essay is the second in a three-part series about reading. Part one focused on reading in the past, and part three will look at the future of reading.

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there,’’ wrote L.P. Hartley in the first sentence of his 1953 novel, “The Go-Between.’’ If you’d like to read more, you can buy “The Go-Between’’ in paperback, a 2002 reissue by New York Review Books. You can also borrow it from the library, or read large amounts of it on Google Books for free.

What you can’t do is buy it for download to your e-reader or your tablet, or as an audio file for your mp3 player. When “The Go-Between’’ was last republished, no one was selling books in those formats. As far as reading goes, 2002 is a foreign country; we do things differently now.

If you’re an adult who reads books today, you are an immigrant from that foreign land - a “digital immigrant.’’ You may love your new iPad, but you were raised in the old country of bookstores, marginalia, the scent of paper, flap copy written on actual flaps. Meanwhile, the toddler playing with his parents’ tablet today will grow up a “digital native,’’ as accustomed to the one-click book purchase as you are to a dust jacket.

We’ve been sailing toward this country for some time, but in 2011, we arrived. Last year, the publishers surveyed by the Association of American Publishers saw 8.3 percent of domestic net sales from e-books. Three months into this year, Simon and Schuster’s e-book sales had climbed to 17 percent of revenue; at Hachette, parent company of Little, Brown, the figure was 22 percent. From November to May, according to a Pew Internet Project study, the percentage of American adults with a dedicated e-reader (like a Nook or Kindle) leaped from 6 percent to 12 percent. Another 8 percent now have tablets. To add a little context, fewer than half of Americans even buy a book in a typical year. So for 12 percent of all Americans to have an e-reader is not trivial.

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