E-Book Vs. Paperback: Who Cares?

Is this the fate of the paperback? Perhaps. But E-books aren’t to blame.

I’ve got booze for today’s little discussion. Don’t say “no thanks” just yet, you might find you want it later. Here, Clive will just hold it for you. Me? I’m already hammered, thanks.

Let’s begin, shall we?

Will e-books be the death of the paperback? Are those marvelous little stacks of paper going to be a thing only mentioned in history books a decade from now? Will libraries consist of nothing but computers and comfy chairs, getting rid of those glorious rows and rows of shelves and that awesome musty-mystery smell that only libraries have?

I don’t care.

Yes, you heard me correctly. I don’t care if e-books replace paperbacks. To me it’s not really an issue of paperback vs. digital. While I’ll miss my paperback (I do so love a real book in my bubbly tubby.) and I’ll have difficulty adjusting to an e-reader, I’ll still have something to READ. This never-ending debate over which is better or whether the evil e-book has ruined fiction for millions of readers is kind of retarded when you look at the bigger picture.

Let me elaborate on that. (Did you doubt that I would?) According to a great little blog I read from time to time, The Encyclopedia Britannica Blog, (I’m a nerd.) at some point around 2010 40 million Americans read at the lowest literacy level. The lowest.

40. Million.

This blog also cites a study done in 2007 that found the percentage of teens who read nothing for pleasure (as in a never check out great YA novel unless forced to) doubled in the 20 year period before the study.

Why are fewer kids interested in books?

Our first finger points at television and movies. Don’t point. It’s rude. Besides, it’s not TV that’s to blame. No really, it’s not. I’m an avid TV and film buff, and I still read voraciously. My generation (I’m 34 if you’re curious.) is in love with books. Most of my friends love to read. Many will pass up television for a good book. We’re not old either. (Unless of course you ask my kids.) We reaped the benefits of the “new” technology of television, the remote control, cable, satellite, on demand, VHS, and eventually DVDs. We are a generation used to the luxury of seeing as story on the screen and a generation that is very addicted to it in many ways. Yet, we still read.

Why? Because as the smart guy writing Britannica’s blog said, a visual image is “neither as functional nor as versatile as text.” He’s right. We read because it allows us to go where we WANT to go in our mind. Television and film show us a story the way some director or producer or whatever sees it. With a book, we can imagine anything we wish.

So stop blaming television.

True, video does play a small role in the demise of basic literacy skills. I’m a freelance writer. This means I write content for various clients online. Some of these clients are content mills, others are news sources, and a couple of them are e-zines. Recently, many freelance writers have noticed a general shift in most (if not all) of these mediums to video supported by text. What does that mean? It means that instead of WRITING  the content, we’re being asked to VIDEO the content and add just a few lines of text beneath. Those of us without the ability to do that…see ya later.

This is what prompted me to mull over the demise of books and the written word in general. What the hell are we doing, folks?

Here’s the real problem as I see it.

The other day as I waited for my kids to come out of the school (we’re not allowed to go inside, but that’s another rant for another day) I shot the shit with a couple of other moms. One of them mentioned that her oldest (14) daughter left her a note the other day. She deciphered it after a few minutes and shook her head. Over a period of a few days she realized that her 7 year old had better literacy (as in reading, spelling) skills than her 14 year old. Both girls have excellent grades, but the older child couldn’t spell literacy if her life depended on it. She used to be able to, but somehow she’d forgotten. This mom worried that her youngest would eventually write notes for her that she’d need the CIA to decode as well.

This is a sad, sad thing.

And this seemingly senseless trend where shit writing is rewarded (I won’t name names) with bestseller status and instant fame, is related to all of this too. Why? Consider you’ve never read a good writer. Imagine never picking up King, Rowling, Vonnegut, Rice, Palahniuk or Irving. (just a few of my favorites, insert your greats here instead) How would you separate shit from gold? You couldn’t. We’re so damn happy to see a book in anyone’s hands, (particularly kids) that we don’t consider WHAT they’re reading. Many savvy little entrepreneurs realized this long ago. Hello self-publishing explosion. Hello publishers going for the sure bet rather than the skilled writer. Good bye hard work and good books.

In North America, governments spend billions to teach kids to read. And they fail. These literacy programs are excellent. Teachers dedicate many, many hours to implementing them too. No one in these areas is shirking their responsibility in raising good writers and readers in my opinion. But they’re fighting an uphill battle here.

My girls have always been exceptional readers, both spelling and writing very well at early ages. (My oldest could read and write well above grade level in junior kindergarten.)  Are they special? Of course they are, but not because of this. The reason that they picked up those skills is because reading has always been a primary focus in my home. There are books everywhere. I’ll buy my kids books any time. It’s the only thing that they know they can ask for and receive without much argument from me. They’ve always seen me with a book in my hand, a book in progress on the table, a book near my bed…books everywhere.

On the other hand, my stepson and a couple of kids I babysit, who are extremely smart kids, struggle to read at their grade level. They can barely spell words that are more than one syllable and they do not pick up a book unless under extreme force. These kids (in my situation anyway) do not come from what we call a “book home”. See the trend?

Yet these kids can navigate the shit out of the Internet. They text, tweet, blog—you name it, they can do it. So what’s the problem? Are these kids just stupid? Not at all.

My theory is that because they’ve grown up in this age of amazing technology, where they can have information and entertainment at the click of a button, they’ve never learned the patience or the focus required to build these literacy skills or to enjoy reading. Think about it. If you are used to punching something into Google, and this is the only way you’ve researched, and someone hands you a book and says “Find this in there”, how agonizing would reading through that book be? I admit, even for a book lover like me, it makes me shudder. I LOVE Google.

But when you have three and four year olds who can text before they can write…

The type of writing necessary for the Internet generation is minimal. “Subliterate” my Britannica friend called it. Emails, texts and tweets require no messing around with proper syntax or spelling. They require no description, no grammar. Only that you convey what you need in as few characters as possible because you’ve got other things to do.

So at least they’re writing and reading something, right? NO! They’re reading nothing. They’re writing nothing. Go take a little jaunt on a few blogs. Go on. Look at all kinds. E-zines, author blogs, forums, etc. Examine the content of the comments. Hell, look at some of the blog posts.

What do you see in a large percentage of posts? Poor grammar? Misspelled words? Punctuation? Exactly. We don’t pay attention to that shit when we’re hammering out a comment or two. Some comments are downright unreadable. Yet, the Internet aficionados can decipher it. We debated this in our forum on Goodreads. It’s a forum for writers and I stand firmly on my decision as a moderator to hold members of that forum, who are supposed to be writers, to refrain from text-speak and to strive to write proper sentences with at least an effort made to spell the words correctly.

Do u no how meny membrs we hav that right coments like ths

Too many.

This is why I bust my ass to create stories that even the most reluctant reader will enjoy. I know I’m not brilliant. I know I have much to learn. But my goal when I sit down to write is to create a world so vivid, so entertaining, so thought provoking, that the reader who is reading it to pass the time until the UFC TwitChat folks are ready to debate the merits of Griffin’s obviously brilliant fighting style vs Martinez’s heavy-handed skills (don’t ask how I know), is reluctant to put it down. I write to inspire someone else to take a shot at creating something better than I’ve given them.

It’s not about digital vs. paperback. Let’s let the big guys battle that out. We’ll keep writing no matter what format those words are read in. Technology will push forward no matter how loudly we gripe and bitch about it. But if no one is reading…

11 thoughts on “E-Book Vs. Paperback: Who Cares?

  1. I concur. I read paperback, hardcover, e-books of all formats, blogs, newspapers, magazines, Google (Yes!!), you name it, and I don't choose what I read by the format it has. I choose to read because I want to learn and to enjoy. As long as there is a need for information and fictional worlds filled with awesome characters, we shouldn't care what format we use to deliver these in. I sure as hell don't. As to the growing indifference toward the correct use of grammar and punctuation… that's just sad. I would make spellcheckers mandatory in ALL online text submission forms. 😛

  2. Great post, Renee! and remember when I complained about your post on some kind of a weeding system? well, I'm now with you after reading several horrible self-pubbed books–but I'm right at this moment reading a traditionally published book that obviously had no editing either! are we destined to be morons? Having books around the house is sooo important–I remember as a kid going through my parent's bookshelves selecting cool sounding titles like, Ibsen's A Doll's House–I was round eight at the time–

  3. Thanks, Nikki. Yes, my post about the weeding system was not about "judging" books, which you did understand, so I won't get into all that again. 🙂 In my home growing up books were everywhere and I loved it. I can't imagine not providing the same for my kids. They text and they're all over the Internet, but they value a good book too. It's possible to have the best of both worlds, but I think the reality people need to realize is that literacy starts at home. Parents need to stop relying on others to teach it and start modelling it. Does that make any sense? I'm due for bed.

  4. Wow, a post about literacy and reading and writing skills…and look at my last comment. I apologize. Mandatory spelling AND grammar checker please.

  5. whatever mistake you made, I didn't notice–Yes! modeling is the best teacher, always! I don't think that is understood as widely as it should be–'do as I say not as I do' just doesn't work…

  6. Every parent and teacher in America needs to read this post.I started with a handicap. English was not my first language and it was agony to be in school, struggling to achieve the simple basics.There was a nun who did not give up on me. She was tough. (Fortunately, I was tougher.) Together, we got me past the first hurdle of spelling and then communicating my needs in English.I was in the 4th grade when I got my last low mark. Before I finished grammar school, I had gone on to win the State Championship in spelling, and then win another major contest in essay-writing.I don't mention these things to brag, but to illustrate how HARD it was to accomplish. You have to want to learn. Society has weaned several generations on a pablum of 'gimme', instead of the grit of 'earn it'.Makes me wish that mean old nun was still alive.

  7. I don't see that as bragging, Maria. I think it shows the difference between our parents and…well, us. You know, I realized a couple of years ago that my kids had become the "gimme" kids that so annoyed me. I corrected that shit right fast. It's a struggle because kids are kids, right? Patience is not their strong suit, but I make sure I praise those things that they have to really work hard to earn and not the things that they lucked into. I don't know how successful I'll be, but my goal is to show them that hard work is worth it, that things shouldn't be easy or fast. It's doubly hard because I am not exactly known for patience either. I had a couple of teachers who forced me to put effort into things like reading. I was lucky too. I was so damn shy that I'd rather fail something than ask for help. I had one teacher, Mrs. Gorr, who wouldn't have any of that. I also had the advantage of knowing what it would be like if I didn't learn to read and write. My dad couldn't read until I was a teen, and even then, it was a struggle for him. He's dyslexic, and although he hides it well from those who don't know him, he battles every single day. I never take my ability to read and comprehend text for granted and I won't let my kids for that reason alone. Imagine passing up job opportunities or things you really want simply because to get it, you'll have to read and understand something and you're too embarrassed to admit that you can't. That's my dad. He's since learned to speak up, but I think it crushes his pride a little every time. Most kids today don't have a valid reason to avoid reading. The teachers are trying, but they just can't do it alone. Last time I checked, laziness was not a disability. We, as parents, shouldn't allow it to be used as an excuse.

  8. Reading is too important to be left to schools. We taught our two children to read before they were three. No, I exaggerate. My daughter is a slow learner. She was four. And that's not boasting for boasting sake. Phonics with cuddles and madness can be fun, the learning effortless, and the reward lasts a lifetime.

  9. Well said, Mike. Slow learner and she read by four? Shit. She's not slow at all. (I know what you mean though.) This is the entire issue. Parents are quick to bitch about how their kids can't read properly or have trouble composing a paragraph for a book report and are quick to blame the education system, but it's not the education system. It's US. We hold accountability for this more than the teachers. Schools can only do so much. That's the reality. *sigh* I guess we can only worry about our own kids. I'm proud of my girls. Not only do they love books, but both of them will sit for hours writing. This makes my heart all soft and mushy and all those things I'm uncomfortable with. Even if they both turn out to be serial killers, I'm proud that I got this part right.

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