Jul. 14, 2009

E-Books and Distracted Reading

Author Steven Johnson on what we may be losing in the switch to e-books.

Because they have been largely walled off from the world of hypertext, print books have remained a kind of game preserve for the endangered species of linear, deep-focus reading. Online, you can click happily from blog post to email thread to online New Yorker article — sampling, commenting and forwarding as you go. But when you sit down with an old-fashioned book in your hand, the medium works naturally against such distractions; it compels you to follow the thread, to stay engaged with a single narrative or argument.

The Kindle in its current incarnation maintains some of that emphasis on linear focus; it has no dedicated client for email or texting, and its Web browser is buried in a subfolder for “experimental” projects. But Amazon has already released a version of the Kindle software for reading its e-books on an iPhone, which is much more conducive to all manner of distraction. No doubt future iterations of the Kindle and other e-book readers will make it just as easy to jump online to check your 401(k) performance as it is now to buy a copy of On Beauty.

As a result, I fear that one of the great joys of book reading — the total immersion in another world, or in the world of the author’s ideas — will be compromised. We all may read books the way we increasingly read magazines and newspapers: a little bit here, a little bit there.

(Read the whole thing here.)

The internet is a near-perfect publishing medium, both a copy machine and “super-distribution system.” At the same time, it creates an attention deficit: accustomed to “surfing” and “browsing,” we can barely hang on long enough to read a short blog post, never mind the deep dive of a whole book. The internet promises to bring us the bounty of every book ever written delivered instantly at the click of a link — even as it trains us not to want them.

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