Reading Is Dead

More and more, Web surfing, iPod listening, and texting is replacing reading

“Reading is dead.”

I had just parked my car in the local library’s parking lot. My seventeen-year-old son, who I just picked up from his lacrosse practice, happily sat next to me. Until I told him of my agenda in the library. That’s when he looked at me with that withering expression teenagers perfect, shrugged apathetically, and returned to his iPod earphoned bliss. As I was alighting to proceed through my attendant tasks, he exploded that ‘reading is dead’ bomb on me.

mirror-lake.rocksBeing a teenager, I thought he was just being provocative, toying with his Poppa. Except…

Ten minutes later, I got back into the van and laid down my materials. He looked down at what I borrowed, looked at me, and said, “See. I told you reading was dead.” I smiled. I had borrowed two CD audio books and a DVD.

“Okay, Mr Smart Teenager”, I retorted. “If I don’t get information from reading, how do I?”

Quick was his counter. “The Web. Audio and video feeds.” He paused. “That’s why YouTube is so huge.” He smiled at me. “You know, that’s where the computer shows you movies and talks to you.”

I had to smile at that.

What could I say. He was right: YouTube is the number two search engine on the web.

But as we drove, he backed off a bit. This was after I pointed out that he was exchanging text messages. “See,” I said, “You’re engaging in a dead act.” (Don’t you just love payback as a parent?)

A reassessment. “Actually, Pops, what I really mean is that reading books is dead. People just don’t have the stamina for reading books anymore. Lots of pages; long chapters. Look at what we read now. Text messages, web pages, blogs, tweets, stuff like that.”

I thought about that for a bit, and said, “But books are still being published, and people are still buying them.”

“Yeah, old people,” he said with a wry grin. “Really old people.”

“Seriously!” I looked over at him, with my own version of that withering smile.

“Seriously.” He reiterated with raised eyebrows. “Books better start having really short chapters.”

And with that, he plugged back in.

I didn’t think too much about that on the way home, except for the part about the short book chapters. I have some of those books, I realized.

But things have a way of coming back at you and rearing their ugly heads. A few days later, I caught a snippet of a televised movie that brought me up short. The characters (cop-related) were discussing the degradation of society, when one said, “What I truly lament is that in a hundred years, no one will know how to read anymore.” Not “will not read” but “will not know how to read”. Is that where we are heading? This is communication at its most basic: the ability to read, cogitate, re-read only slower this time.

An onslaught of electronic communi­cation. In a recent blog, I wrote about my Kindle. What I didn’t mention is that many of the books that can be downloaded come with an audio component: the Kindle can read them to you. And that just adds to communication without reading. I can have web pages read to me. I listen to and watch recorded webinars; I listen to podcasts and webcasts; I watch You-Tube videos; I watch and listen to televised reports on newspaper sites instead of reading the accompanying articles. Our local Borders bookstore is closing soon. The one in Saratoga New York is already closed. The company is bankrupt. A visit to our local Barnes and Noble supports less reading: a huge amount of floor space dedicated to their Nook and its related products. There clearly is a movement afoot.

All in all, though, I’d have to say that my son is a bit off-base. Reading isn’t dead. But with so many other communication options available, reading appears to be dying. and the amount of material that can be read at a sitting is being dramatically reduced. It must be structured in smaller and smaller bites. This affects all sorts of communication besides books, such as instruction, reports, proposals, and marketing copy. Just take a look at any current college text and you’ll see what I mean: lots and lots of smaller chunks of text, scattered page layout, sidebars, and an overabundance of graphics.

One last point. Perhaps the greatest difficulty in writing is its detachment from the reader. You write; they read; and there is no interaction. It’s a true throw-it-over-the-wall situation. (Just think how easy it is to flame someone online, through an email, a post, or a text, when that same writer wouldn’t think of being that rude in person.)

Now a lot of written online text is accompanied by a comment section, so there can at least be the semblance of a dialog. Listening to audio and watching videos creates a higher level of human interaction that simply doesn’t exist with written text that is read. I, for one, revel in that movement toward increased humanity in communication.

—Rich Maggiani

7 Comments, RSS

  1. Bryan 29 August 2011 @ 3:45 pm

    Not buying it. With my Sony Reader I am reading a LOT more than I used to. Also, the examples of bookstores has more to do, imo, business changes than reading patterns. All brick and mortar retail is getting hammered. And more space to Nook? That represents change in reading venue, not end of reading.

  2. Christopher Burd 29 August 2011 @ 4:21 pm

    Call me a pro-read reactionary, but I think that (most of the time) traditional reading is superior to consuming audio or video. Audio and video are very linear: you start at time 00:00, you finish at time 05:00 (or 15:00, or 120:00, whatever). You can skip sections, but you don’t know what your skipping over. Want to roll back to the speaker’s previous point? You can do it, but it’s cumbersome. Want to compare two points from different sections? Again, possible but cumbersome.

    Reading traditional texts, the eye can skim, pause to consider, re-read to clarify or critique, skip back to compare – all with almost the agility of thought itself.

    OK, that’s a bit poetic, maybe; but reading – concentrated, immersive reading, like with books – is a poetic thing.

  3. Larry Kunz 29 August 2011 @ 4:34 pm

    Good article, Rich.

    In his latest Alertbox, Jakob Nielsen pointed out that old technologies typically aren’t completely eclipsed by new technologies. TV was invented, but we still kept radio. SmartPhones were invented, but we still have mainframe and desktop computers.

    Jakob’s point isn’t true 100 percent of the time. (He acknowledges that there are no more town criers. He might’ve also mentioned telegrams and — soon — faxes.) Still, it holds true often enough that we probably don’t have to worry about the death of reading in our lifetimes.

    Still….In a hundred years, if the act of reading continues to be devalued in our culture, it’s likely that fewer people will know how to read in anything but the most cursory way. Our children’s children will live in a world that has, excuse the cliche, the attention span of a gnat. And I wonder what that’s going to mean for our culture.

  4. Michelle 29 August 2011 @ 4:38 pm

    Reading isn’t dead. Reading will never be dead either, not completely, because not everyone is wired. And because nothing can ever replace the tactile feel and smell and weight of a book in one’s hands. For those who think their Kindle is da bomb, I have two words: spa pool. And it’s kinda hard to balance on an elliptical trainer. (That’s where I get most of my reading done these days, at the gym. Reading is such a pleasure it actually motivates me to exercise. That’s some motivation!)

  5. Karina Casebolt 29 August 2011 @ 8:37 pm

    I found your article to be philosophically intriguing, Rich. Relevant issues in this day and age! I have experienced practically identical scenarios with my offspring, and your article prompted me to reflect on this. Although I am aware of how infrequently my daughters (ages 18 & 21) spend reading literature, I still maintain hope for the intimacy of the (book) reading experience – for now. Perhaps we are starting to sound like our grandparents…”I remember when…reading involved books…”

    My maternal grandmother (my last living grandparent) was born in 1916. When I think of all the inventions and developments she has witnessed, it is truly staggering….

  6. Irene 30 August 2011 @ 11:29 pm

    Agreeing with Chris’ points and adding that this reader misses underlining her favorite passages in an audiobook, to glance back upon someday for review, much as she loves such CDs for enlivening car travel.

    Keep up the thoughtful posts, Rich!

  7. Kathryn 12 September 2011 @ 9:33 am


    I truly enjoyed your message and the style with which you conveyed it.

    Personally, I don’t think reading will ever die, because someone must write, and read, the original text that may eventually flow into the ears of those who enjoy the auditory method of acquiring information.

    Will that create a cast system: those who can read and those who can’t? Will that mean that those who can read will have a unique marketable skill and enjoy a higher earning capacity than those who can’t? hmmm. I suppose the possibility of a cast system means that ensuring my children can read, and read well, is a worthy goal, indeed.

    As a mother of three under 11, of which one child is challenged with a learning disability, I spend a great deal of time, effort, and energy ensuring that my children can read. My mantra: reading is power. With the afore mentioned possibility of a reading cast system, would it follow that if reading is power, and money is power, that reading is money? Questions we shall debate at the dinner table tonight.

    You’ve managed to not only provide a moment of enjoyment, but set my mind a whirling and inspired me to post this response.

    Well done!

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *