With e-books on the rise, print news faltering and Kindle owners taking up every goddamn table in the nation’s coffeeshops, it’s understandable that a lot of people are preemptively mourning the printed word. There’s an entire “Drawbacks” section in the Wikipedia entry for “E-book” — and if that doesn’t strike you as odd, consider the lack of a comparable section in the article on mp3s. No one misses video rental stores; our generation tends to embrace new technologies and never look back. More than any other media, then, it is books that inspire purism. The advent of the printing press catalyzed revolutions centuries ago; today, books are the chief holdout of our world’s digitization.
As a college student lacking time and disposable income, my reading habits came to outgrow what I could reasonably obtain. I began to dabble in the world of online reading — begrudgingly, at first, still printing things when I could. Within a few months, I was reading entire novels. I’m not just used to it at this point — I’ve come to recognize that reading online greatly enhances the reading experience. Any avid reader with limited resources who is not taking advantage of the possibilities opened by reading on a computer or tablet is seriously depriving themselves.
All of this isn’t to say digital reading is a substitute for print — it’s not. A tablet can never replace the weight of a good novel in your hand. Think of digital reading as a supplement rather than a competitor, an incredibly useful alternative for when you can’t access physical copies of desired materials.
The world’s largest library at your fingertips
Between library.nu, Project Gutenberg, torrents, and the many publications that make their content available online, the breadth of material on the web is unrivaled by any physical library. It’s not just about having a wider selection, either — the easy accessibility means you wind up reading things you’d never bother with otherwise. Say I have a sudden compulsion to find some biographical deets on Sartre, for instance: in the past, I’d probably forget or lose interest by the time I visited a library. Now I’m able to act on my impulses, instantly combing through any number of sources to find the information I need.
Digital reading is better suited to the pace of our age
When we think of reading, we like to imagine ourselves turning pages in lush fields or spending hours curled up in bed with a cup of tea. Juxtaposed with the reality of modern life, however, such visions are quaint fantasies. Today’s reader is more likely to look through a paper or a magazine in the morning, skim a hardback textbook while waiting for the bus, and read a quick chapter before bed. Computers and tablets allow you to quickly obtain your reading, switch between sources, and take thousands of pages worth of material on the go (which is, literally, life-changing for a college student).
The web supplements reading
I often hear people complain that reading online is too distracting – chat messages pop up, anti-virus software demands updating, Facebook beckons you away. Tune that shit out and recognize that having the web’s resources at your disposal can enhance the critical reader’s experience: look up unknown words; clarify confusing details; get historical context; search through related works; share and discuss passages with friends. It all adds up to a much bigger picture than one author’s page-bound account can afford.
Less friction between the author and reader could alter distribution
More online readers could allow authors to bypass traditional publishing companies. The implications for distribution here are profound. The Guardian reports that Chinese authors are charging readers modest premiums to access self-published websites with great success. There will likely be growing pains if such models catch on in the States, and publishers will certainly bare the burden – but my gut tells me writers and readers both stand to benefit in the long run.
Pirating reading is not unethical
I say this with a caveat. Let’s acknowledge that authors and the publishing industry depend on paying consumers for survival. If people stop paying for great work, we’ll start seeing less of it. That’s a fact.
Another fact: I could not begin to afford to purchase all the media that I consume. Forced to choose between piracy and depriving myself of literature, I’m not going to hesitate. This isn’t just selfishness: I submit that the individual’s education is in the interest of the greater good, for both the individual and society at large. It’s certainly unfortunate that authors are often not rewarded for their work – but placing the blame on piracy would be misguided. Let’s just say that when I’m president, we’ll spend less money on building planes that will never fly, and more on fostering a love of reading in society (not to mention combating poverty and ensuring recent college grads are able to afford a healthy reading habit).
If you’re ready to give it a shot, there are a few resources you should know about: Instapaper and Readability are great tools for reading comfortably, without the clutter and shitty formatting of publication websites. Longform and Longreads both curate excellent online nonfiction and make it very easy to save articles to phones and tablets. Plus, low-end Kindles are now $79.