Friday, 23 March 2012

digital reading ...

There's a story going around at the moment that most US college students prefer digital reading to reading paper books.

As you'd expect there are people who view this as a sign that the barbarians are about to storm the humanities faculty, and equally there are those who see this as an opportunity for a sociological study of reading in the twenty first century.

Two things are clear - digital books are here to stay (just look at the Amanda Hocking phenomenon) and that there's wide spread adoption of digital reading for recreational reading - as I blogged last (Australian) spring.

With all sociological studies context is key. What happens in one place may not happen or be appropriate elsewhere.

Reading paper books may be a more sensual experience, and what's more, if you tend to read obscure books, sometimes essential, but if you want to read a well known, widely available nineteenth century novel, say Wilkie Collins  'The Woman in White' for some escape time while commuting, electronic wins hands down.

The Penguin edition of the Woman in White weighs around half a kilo, and is far to bulky to sit in a jacket pocket or be stowed comfortably in a messenger bag. You are going to read the Project Gutenberg edition for free, even if you have the paper version at home.

And you would naturally expect it to carry over into other aspects of daily life, so that people sitting in a cafe on campus are using their computers and tablets, or if reading are using an e-device. What they do at home or when they've gone down the coast for the weekend might be quite different.

Likewise their choice of technology might be different. If I'm travelling I'll use an e-reader due to the superior battery life, and also quite frankly if I'm rattling in a bus across the city (or northern Thailand for that matter) as the e-reader is lighter, and if it gets damaged I'd much rather lose a $100 kindle than a  $500 tablet computer. 

The northern Thailand thing is more than just hyperbole - if you're travelling somewhere where recharging your device is not an option - be it a 24h flight to Europe or a trip to rural Laos the long battery life of an e-reader really does count for something.

Back in 2010, after having taken an e-reader on vacation instead of a pile of processed dead tree, I blogged about the convenience factor and also included links to a couple of relevant newspaper articles about the convenience of e-readers. It's interesting (and relevant) to note that a bookstore owner in Ireland has accused an airline of damaging his sales because their policy on hand baggage means people will not impulse buy a book to take with them on a flight.

So, if I wanted to re run the study here in Australia I'd like to compare the adoption of digital reading  between literature students, a cohort of mixed arts students, and a cohort of general students. I'd also be asking questions about context and controlling for availability. I'd guess you'd find more e-readng among literature students, purely because it's a way of getting a lot of the standard eighteenth and nineteenth century texts for free and for general reading perhaps a very slight preference for paper as a more sensual experience ...

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