Saturday, August 29, 2015

The Way We Read Now: It's Earlier Than We Think

This is my final blog post, because I have to hurry up and create a substantial literary oeuvre in the next two decades (I've decided now that I have some ideas for it, which was my main reason for moving to a big city three years ago, and bizarrely, it worked), and more specifically and immediately, start writing a novel and maybe some short stories right away after my 40th birthday happens on the final day of the month.

I actually have already created several substantial literary oeuvres, including several plays, an abundance of fan fiction, and several blogs, of which this is my third. But I gave up on the playwriting career as a rash youth, the fan fiction isn't especially marketable, and the search engines haven't brought me fame, either. I'm nevertheless astonished at the consistency of my traffic, which seems to be primarily generated by people (usually people: I have a good idea of when it's internet chicanery) with high-traffic blogs linking to my posts. So thank you, unknown people who have, here and there, found one of my posts noteworthy. Although I probably would have kept talking anyway – I mean, my traffic is negligible as it is – I do prefer to get in front of more eyeballs, as long, it seems, as I don't have to find the eyeballs.

I don't foresee a future where I'll be blogging, although some day, in another incarnation, I might be forced to have a self-promotional website. In the meantime I can be found on the interwaves on Another Kind of Distance, my podcast on time travel movies (and sometimes tangentially related movies we like, and sometimes TV episodes), co-hosted by David Fiore.

When I started this blog, it was supposed to be a literary blog, but it so happens that I can neither read fast enough, nor process what I read and produce elegant thoughts about it fast enough, for even a monthly post. So then it became my “everything that crosses my mind” blog. For the final post – coincidentally, but still – I'm returning to the topic of literature to muse about the place it holds in our present culture through the lens of the digital “reading delivery systems” that I've explored in the past year or so.

But first, some stats.

Disappearance of Reading?

It only makes sense that the more options we have for entertainment, the less time we have to devote to reading. Does that make us a less literate culture? Clearly not: the basic literacy rate in England and North American has risen to near-universality since the 19th century, which is now looked upon as the golden age of novel-reading. What's kind of surprising is that reading for entertainment has survived at all, but the YA boom proved that despite the proliferation of television choices, ordinary people still want books, as long as the books don't demand too much time or mental energy and have some kind of direct archetypal appeal.

Still, reading is certainly quickly crowded out by other activities as soon as you're out of school. For myself, I work for 7 or 7.5 hours Monday through Friday, write for an hour or two, try to fit in a TV episode so that I know what everybody else is talking about, read articles on the web for an hour or so – and that leaves me with an hour or two to read a book, which on weeknights, because I'm tired, most often ends up being one. One weeknight every week I spend with my boyfriend, or, since he has a similar schedule, we'd never see each other. We also try to have a date day on the weekend, although sometimes I spend part of it seeing my best friend; and one of my days off I have to devote to serious writing, although that gets messed with, too, because I also have to do errands on that day, like groceries and laundry. And since everyone's life is like this, unless you're a literature professor, retired (and no one of my generation is going to get to retire until they're 65 at least), a speed reader, or preferably all three, where is the time to read supposed to come from?

So there's really no need to admonish the general public for not finding a lot of time to read – unless your motivation is to shame all of us into making the time. But if we're going to make the time, we have to make it for good books. The only reason to encourage any reading is that it might lead to good reading. (I realize that I don't get to define what good reading is, but I do believe that there is good reading and bad reading.) Since nowadays you can encounter educated people who watch so much TV they can't possibly ever pick up a book, I presume that once you're educated – at the BA level, say – you will remain an articulate person and analytical thinker without ever picking up a book again (although it probably helps to sometimes read an article).

I remember when, having decided that I would not to the prestigious theatre school that had suspended me for insubordination (apparently, I wasn't given an official reason) since I'd run out of money and already had a lot of student debt anyway, I figured that my BA and an almost-MA were enough and it was time, at 32, to enter the real world, so I got a call centre job with a bank. During the training, which took place over the course of about six weeks, our supervisor not only showed us a slideshow of his home renos but also gave us such lifestyle advice as, “I read for 15 minutes every day.” Which struck me, an ex-English major, as ludicrous – as though reading were like doing the StairMaster, and not even with dedication, but as a kind of token gesture. (As you can imagine, my new career didn't work out.)

According to these Pew Research Center survey stats, the median number of books read by American adults in 2013 was 5. (I'm going by US stats because the most recent stats for Canada that I could find are from 2007.) For the college-educated, the median number was 8; by income, the number climbed higher according to income level and ranged between 3 (for under $30, 000) and 8 (for $75, 000 and over). I am college-educated and make well under $30, 000 per year, which makes me quite the anomaly (which I largely attribute to having set out on a path to become an English professor and then belatedly changed my mind), and I finished 8 books in the past 12 months. That's very slightly more than what I've been averaging since I graduated with my MA at the end of 2009, which, from memory, I'd say is about 6. 

I don't remember completing more books per year at earlier points in my life – I remember struggling with my attention span since I was in my late teens, and spending any extra reading time I had in university researching and writing essays and fooling around on the internet – but according to my Goodreads account, I must have: I found 447 books that I've read, or (for short story, essay, and poetry collections) partially read, between the ages of 12 and 39, for an average of 16.5 books per year. And that doesn't include the commercial and genre fiction (Anne Rice, V.C. Andrews, etc.) that I was still reading until my late teens, or the innumerable book chapters and academic articles I read as a university student – sometimes even (I shudder to admit it) for pleasure. 

Experimenting with Formats and Apps: Audible and LibriVox

The Pew Research Center stats are for print and e-books plus audio books. I also listened to a lot of audio books this year – about 8 again. So if you include audio books, that gets my number up to 16, which was the mean for people in the top household income tier (although someone in the second-highest income tier skewed the mean up to 18). It hardly seems fair to do that, though, because the reason I was able to listen to so many audio books is that I have a job, and bosses, that allow me to listen to my phone all day at work. This initially led to my discovery of podcasts, but since I'm picky, I'm only really interested in half a dozen or so podcasts at a time, so once I'm caught up with the show's archived episodes, I need more things to listen to for an average of 35 hours per week. That's what led me to discover Audible.

Audible, which is the only for-pay online audiobooks service I can find with a cursory search, is owned by Amazon, those internet monopolists. I guess you can also get audiobooks from iTunes, although I just learned that. Anyway, Audible hooked me in by offering a credit for any book every month for a monthly fee of around 20 Canadian dollars (it was slightly below before our present recession, and is now slightly above). Since online audiobooks are often considerably more expensive than ebooks (as their physical counterparts are than print books), this is a good deal, and definitely convenient. In the same search that uncovered Audible I also found LibriVox, which appears to be the most widely-used free audiobooks site, with the reading being done by volunteers.

How you use audiobooks, if you even have the time to use them, will depend on your personality. There's shame attached to “reading” in this way, although apparently science shows that comprehension is not affected by getting the book through the ear rather than the eye. I guess the shame stems from the stigma on illiteracy, and also “laziness”: although it takes as much effort to listen as to read, you can keep playing an audio book all the way to the end while listening to it intermittently, whereas you have to read each sentence to get through a book.

It almost seemed as though internet-savvy intellectuals were all discovering these delivery systems at the same time, because soon after I signed up for the Audible deal I started hearing ads for the service on podcasts like Partially Examined Life and Best of the Left, which was a real pisser, because I could have got a discount on my first book if I'd signed up using a promo code from one of the shows. Or I guess really it was Audible contacting these podcasters. (Or they applied to have a sponsor? No idea how it works – my podcast is not Next Level.) Anyway though, I also noticed the PEL guys talking about using LibriVox after I'd discovered it on my own.

I decided to use audiobooks for two main purposes: to familiarize myself with classics that I know I'm never going to get around to reading, with lets me feel “cultured” while freeing up time to read books that actually interest me, and to familiarize myself with massive non-fiction tomes that I'd find too boring to finish in print. This year (i.e., 12-month period from birthday to birthday), for example, the most noteworthy books I obtained through Audible were The Canterbury Tales, Don Quixote (in Edith Grossman's recent translation), and Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century (which is not one of my 8 audiobooks, since I have 8 hours left). Because it's even easier for your mind (or at least my mind) to wander when listening than when reading, and because I'm actually doing tasks while listening, I don't expect to catch more than the gist of the books. Thanks to the internet, however, I can then fill in the gaps by with the use of SparkNotes (that's right, I have no shame – I'm not in university anymore), Wikipedia, and, in the case of new non-fiction books, in-depth articles.

There are serious flaws with Audible, however, that prevent its audiobooks from being adequate substitutes for physical books, whether audio or print, and I sincerely hope that Amazon and the makers of personal electronic devices give enough of a shit to improve these books and apps as more people get their culture this way. First: it's just about impossible to “rewind” with any accuracy to relisten to an important point, at least on my puny iPhone, which turns the most infinitesimal nudge of my big, clumsy index finger into 20 minutes of book. I'm sure it would be more precise if I were doing it with a cursor on a computer – but if your device is supposed to be able to support these books, it should do a better job of it. Second: the audio chapter divisions do not come with information from the print version. They're simply labelled “Chapter 1,” “Chapter 2,” and so on – and the numbers don't even necessarily correspond to the print book's chapter numbers, because they don't even distinguish between a chapter and a prologue or foreword. If, therefore, I want to go back to a specific chapter and listen to it again, because I was especially distracted during that part, or because Wikipedia assures me that it's an important one, Audible makes that extremely inconvenient. Considering that they're pricing these things at top dollar (unlike low-priced ebooks), it's disappointing to say the least. The Canterbury Tales audiobook, for example, heftily priced at nearly $30 US (Blackstone edition), doesn't even tell you what tale you're hearing.

I make a further distinction between Audible and LibriVox, only being willing to use LibriVox for certain books. For example: public domain non-fiction classics, like On Liberty and On the Duty of Civil Disobedience. Books that I should have read long ago and probably wouldn't get around to reading for a long time. Ironically, although it's free to listen to the books, LibriVox users actually enter chapter information accurately, taking it from the print edition. There are sometimes sound quality problems, and sometimes you'll get someone who reads too fast, or has a thick accent that's hard for a person from your area of the globe to understand. But just as often, you'll get a reading dramatic and gripping enough to be professional. (I loved Bob Neufeld's colourful reading of Civil Disobedience.)

Nevertheless, with however little warrant, I prefer to leave my major works of literature, which require dramatic talent to read properly, to paid readers, and therefore to Audible – especially since I don't need to buy too many books this way, only the ones that I feel a duty but not much desire to read (or revisit).

The Digital Public Library: OverDrive

Contrary to popular belief, readers seem to be extremely slow to adopt new reading methods. I'm a cutting-edge experimentalist by the conservative standards of the readers in the Pew survey: I'm almost off print books altogether. Having moved a lot in my adult life, I've gradually shed my physical library, which, I reasoned, consisted of books that I had either already read or was probably never going to read. I have no sentimental attachment to physical books whatsoever, and I've even come to almost dread reading them, since I at least have the illusion that I'm reading ebooks faster and more easily. I've definitely noticed gradations of stimulation, wherein if I'm tired (which at this age, working full time, when am I not), my laptop screen is highly stimulating (I can read on it all night), my phone screen is fairly stimulating, and a print page is not stimulating at all (I'll start falling asleep after a few sentences). I can understand bemoaning the endangerment of book cover art (like record cover art), but that's a separate issue from how one wants to read; so is the endangerment of physical spaces for lovers of reading, both bookstores and libraries.

The only limitation on my switch to ebooks is what's been converted to that format. Although almost all new books and editions since the ebook revolution (2000ish?) come in e-editions now, I have no idea who decides what from the back catalogue or public domain gets an e-edition, in what order, or how fast. The major canonical authors are represented, of course, and the major cult figures, but many omissions remain, so we're all going to be relying on physical books in libraries for some time.

However, this year I also discovered how to take ebooks out of the library, using the library app OverDrive. (Which, I just googled-learned, has a deal with Amazon. Of course. Amazon owns my electronic reading experience.) You have to be a member of the library, and then you have access to its ebook and digital audiobook collection – which is pretty desultory, if the Toronto Public Library is anything to go by. Maybe I can blame it on Rob Ford – although if you do a quick google on this issue, you'll find that there are apparently untold difficulties involved, from the practical to the philosophical, with the acquisition and lending of ebooks by libraries. For now, borrowing ebooks from libraries can only serve as a supplement to buying them. My habitual process now is: check TPL's digital collection through OverDrive; if it's not there, check Kobo (formerly iBooks, but with Canada's dollar screwed again, I'm relying more on Kobo); if it's not there, see how much the print edition costs; if it's too much, check TPL's print collection.

Really, though, the limitations on ereading aren't so much sending me back to print books as helping me make decisions about what to read next. But only when I have a choice: if it's a matter of doing research for something I'm writing, I will of course avail myself of TPL's print collection. Very occasionally I still get a craving for a book that's either not available as an ebook or out of print, but that's in the number of less than half a dozen per year. (As for ebooks, I probably purchase around half a dozen in a year.) And if I'm in an airport, I really want a print book, preferably a somewhat junky one, which is how I ended up reading Gone Girl, after seeing the movie – and the print book came in handy when my return flight was delayed and I ended up stranded in the airport for six hours with no way to charge my cell phone.

The Future of Reading?

I was surprised to learn that I'm such an early adopter of these new ways of reading, and also surprised at the correlation in the Pew survey between higher education, on the one hand, and use of non-print books on the other. It seems counter-intuitive, for example, that the same percentage of people who have completed some college and college graduates would have read at least one print book, but far fewer non-graduates would have read an ebook or used an audiobook. If audiobooks are for the “lazy” or “illiterate,” why would their use go up with education level? Does comfort with technology increase with education level? Are college graduates, like me, trying to cram extra books into their craniums by reading on portable digital devices on the fly and listening to audio books on their commute? Are only the most avid readers apt to get excited about format innovations, and curious about what they can do to enhance one's reading life?

I'm not always an early adopter. Although I've been addicted to the internet for the entirety of this century, I only got a mobile phone when I moved to Toronto in the summer of 2012, only got a smartphone when I got a job selling mobile phones in the spring of 2013, only got a good smartphone that Xmas, and only started discovering the different options for reading since around last spring. So although I probably represent the vanguard of the shift to ebooks, it's also probably the case that despite all of the alarm over that shift – especially if you've worked in the book industry, as I did for several years – it's actually happening very slowly, and only starting to pick up now. Still, in my almost complete abandonment of print, I'm in a tiny minority: only 5% of readers in the Pew survey read an ebook without also reading a print book, and I only avoided that category by my airport purchase. 

All in all, my reasons for preferring ebooks to print books are: they're usually cheaper (although going up); despite many missing titles, I'm still more likely to find the title I'm looking for than if I go to even a huge bookstore in a major city, and don't have to wait for a special order; if it's a library book, I don't have to pick it up and I can't forget to return it; I don't have to move them; my whole library travels with me wherever I go, accessible from my phone; and screens stimulate me, while the print page puts me to sleep. I hope we'll always have print books as well, and public spaces for book-lovers and knowledge-seekers, and physical picture books will always be important for children who are learning to read, but personally, I'd be just as happy if I never had to read a print book again.

As to whether we're going to “stop reading” altogether in the future – there is of course a certain artificiality in judging how much a person reads in a year by the number of books they've read. We of course now all read and write text all day long, with varying levels of literacy, in order to communicate through social media or our mobile phones. Even sticking to discursive prose (not recipes or IMDb entries, then), I read for far more than 15 minutes per day, every day, but a lot of that reading consists of: short articles, long articles, blog posts, Wikipedia entries, movie reviews, and on and on, all of it online and most of it encountered through Facebook shares and Google searches, although I'll also go straight to certain authors, publications, and sites. Goodreads, too, artificially divides your units of reading into books, because its database collects editions of published books – even though the actual works may be poems, plays, essays, or short stories, or collections of poems, plays, essays, or short stories.

Even if there's a decline in book reading, that may not mean that there's a decline in reading. A lot of internet reading may be frivolous, but a lot of book reading is frivolous too, so counting the number of books read can only give you the roughest measure of a person's annual reading – if “reading” means “serious reading,” and I'm not sure why we'd be trying to measure annual reading, or using books as the measure, if that's not what we were trying to measure. Books – as distinct from anthologies – do remain central to intellectual culture, with their sustained arguments, their narrative ambition and complexity, their inducement (in reader and writer) of reflection. And if internet reading is one of the things pushing out book reading, as it may well be, that's something that should be fought. But before waving our arms around about cultural decay, we should still distinguish a decline in book reading from a decline in reading (and knowledge, and thoughtfulness), as well as being aware that all books aren't created equal.

One definite limitation on ebooks: lending the book. For example, today I read an eerie time travel story, "Real Estate," in Rivka Galchen's collection American Innovations, and I wanted to lend the book to David Fiore so he could read it. However, I can't just lend him my phone (or tablet if I had one, and some would be pissed to have to lend their ereader). That would be fine if he was going to read the story right now, but maybe he just wants me to lend him the book so that he'll remember to read it when he gets around to it, and that I can't do. I checked and it's available through OverDrive, but he'd have to download the app – to his Kobo, since he doesn't like reading on his phone. So I guess it won't be a big deal once everyone is used to getting ebooks from libraries and libraries have better ebook collections. Still, recommending that someone read something, even if they can download it for free, isn't the same thing as just lending them the damn book. I've bought the book, I should be able to lend it. It seems that Amazon actually has a way to do this, although it's like a library loan, which means the borrower only has a certain window within which to read it, which is kind of annoying, but at the same time does solve the problem of friends or exes never returning your book. Which is another thing – you can't gift an ebook that you own. Unless Amazon has, or develops, a way to do that, too.

The future of reading, it seems, will be much like the past, but with different annoyances. For now, though, I find exploring the new reading delivery systems a thrill. It's like when I was a kid, and there was nothing more thrilling to me than the novelization of a favourite movie, because it meant taking a favourite thing and making it even better by making it into a book. In this case, the two favourite things being combined are digital technology and books. Ultimately I'm still trying to track down some words written in a particular order by someone that some people have thought were invaluable, get access to them affordably, and find a way to squeeze them into my brain, like a diner ketchup package.