Books on Tee-Shirts: More on the Reading Crisis

In Ken Auletta’s “Publish or Perish,” about the sale of books in print copy versus electronic format (New Yorker, April 26), Steve Jobs is shown unwrapping the iPad as a reversal of Apple’s stated position two years earlier, when Jobs said, according to Auletta, that “It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore” (p. 24). It’s an interesting claim, one that might be supported by comparing movie products to audience viewing habits, for it doesn’t seem to matter how good or bad a movie is, people will still go to see it. Case in point, I travelled through “Hot Tub Time Machine” the other night, the worst movie I’ve ever seen. It reminded me of a martial arts film I was invited to view years ago in Hollywood. The film was in the editing stage and a number of prospective investors had been invited to view it. After the viewing there was a discussion, and asked what he thought of the film, one viewer said, “Maybe we could cut it up and sell guitar picks.” The comment suggests an advantage of print books over electronic books; paper can be recycled for a variety of uses, but what to you do with a disaster in electronic format? You can hit the delete key, but your $9.99 evaporates like cotton candy without the stickiness.

Jobs had gone on to say, in support of his claim that people don’t read anymore, again, according to Auletta, that “Forty per cent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year” (p. 24). It’s interesting evidence. What does it mean to read less than a book? And even if we knew, since what Jobs is really talking about isn’t reading books but the sales of books, what difference does it make if the reader finished the book purchased? Too, if sixty percent of people in the U.S. read two or more books in a year, does the evidence support that “people don’t read anymore”? Reading statistics supporting evidence of a decline in reading can be found in the CQ Researcher report of Feb. 22, 2008, “Reading Crisis,” and in Caleb Crain’s December 24, 2007 New Yorker article “Twilight of the Books: What will life be like if people stop reading?” Crain’s article is listed in the CQR bibliography. Discussion regarding the decline in reading, drops in book sales, newspapers eliminating book reviews, and, indeed, the disappearance of newspapers (which we had some fun with in our post “What we will miss when newspapers disappear”), has since grown and continues to grow, but much of the discussion is about revenue as much as it is about reading. Increasingly the discussion focuses on price point and price elasticity of demand. At the same time, it may be that newspapers had simply grown too fat, ignored their audience, and that the decline in book sales may be the evidence of another bubble, for the price of new, hardback books may have reached a tipping point of price absurdity. And Auletta’s article suggests that electronic format is about price at least as much as it is about reading. For the general interest reader, and particularly for the beginning or returning reader, the decision to read or not may also be about anti-trust, for deciding what to read is as important as deciding what it’s worth.

The other night, in a discussion about literature, we talked about movies. Why, someone asked, do we so readily go to see a movie, that, after all, begins, presumably, with a written script, while we avoid going to read a book? It’s a great question, for we don’t ask our spouse or date, “Hey, you want to read a book with me tonight?” A movie is an experience most viewers share, and the experience of viewing a movie in a packed house is different from watching the same film with a few folks spread out in an otherwise empty theatre. Movies are viewed in the dark, books in the light. Movie going is a social event; reading is a solitary affair – reading on-line seems to blur the distinction. Imagine a world where a television commercial is a trailer for an upcoming book: “In book stores this summer!” Then imagine long lines of book purchasers waiting to get their hardback copy signed by the travelling star; but did they all read the book? Or did they walk out half way thru. What 40% made the purchase? They may have already been non-readers, purchasing not a book to read, but a tee-shirt to prove they’d been to the concert and touched the star. And Jobs may have been interested in electronic book publishing all along, but why play his hand too soon? Why not catch Amazon and Google by surprise? It’s about the scoop, the hype, the cover. Hold still; I’m trying to read your shirt.