Literacy and the Future of Publishing

December 30, 2008

If you’ve examined my short essay on the subject of literacy and the future of publishing you will find it both brief and dated (although, arguably, this subject does not evolve rapidly).

I’ve been meaning for some time to recommend the TED site…what richness lies there!

When it comes to the subject of literacy, Dave Eggers, bestselling author and publisher-extraordinaire, on the TED site, offers an extremely moving call to improve literacy within Western countries. He has put his actions where his beliefs lie in an extraordinary way. I won’t steal any thunder from his presentation. When you have a few minutes to be inspired, please watch his presentation.

If you don’t have the time for video, head over to the Web site he’s established to follow his dream.

Literacy is clearly inextricably linked to the future of publishing. There are many roads to literacy: Mr. Eggers has created just one. I have nothing but admiration for his effort.

Noted January 23, 2009: I see that the New York Times‘ technology columnist Virginia Heffernan is very fond of TED also. Her Confessions of a TED Addict is a great read!

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Is the Web Making Children Illiterate?

July 26, 2008

A surprisingly strong article appears in tomorrow’s New York Times (July 27, 2008) that tackles the ongoing and vexing issue of whether the increasing hours spent by youngsters on the Web, often at the expense of reading books and other sustained verbal constructions, is turning them into babbling drones, or whether it’s possible that new forms of literacy might be accompanying this dramatic change.

I write “surprisingly strong” because newspapers often treat these complex issues by merely interviewing a few “representative” humans, and then drawing conclusions on this worthless limited data. The result is more “color” than analysis, akin to the tripe we encounter when the subject is “what’s your favorite movie this summer?” The Times‘ piece “Literacy Debate: Online, R U Really Reading?” weighs in at nearly 3500 words, and while we do meet the Konyks, the Sims (not from SimCity!), and the Gaudets, we’re also treated to a bevy of outside experts with conflicting viewpoints, and are provided references to several important reports.

You’ll find all of the standard anti-Internet arguments well-represented in the article, but also fresh ideas. We’re reminded once again that “at least since the invention of television, critics have warned that electronic media would destroy reading.” But, the article continues, “what is different now, some literacy experts say, is that spending time on the Web, whether it is looking up something on Google or even, entails some engagement with text.”

Further, “some Web evangelists say children should be evaluated for their proficiency on the Internet just as they are tested on their print reading comprehension. Starting next year, some countries will participate in new international assessments of digital literacy, but the United States, for now, will not.” (Surprised?)

There’s lot’s more to discover in this well-balanced account of the debate. It’s the best summary I’ve encountered to date.

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No Snacking Between Books Please!

April 29, 2008

I don’t know about you, but I’m getting a little weary of all the Amazon-generated hype about the Kindle, its proprietary eBook reader (described by Amazon as a “revolutionary wireless reading device [emphasis mine]). We’re told incessantly how “visionary,”exceptional,” and, yes, “revolutionary” this little device is, but we’re not told why (with regard to features that differentiate it meaningfully from its nine competitors). The Amazon site states: “Revolutionary electronic-paper display provides a sharp, high-resolution screen that looks and reads like real paper.” But all of its competitors use ePaper.

We’re told that it sold out 5-½ hours after release, but have never been told how many units had been produced. And now, when you go to Amazon’s home page, you’e greeted not by the usual smorgasbord of new product releases in various genres, but by a somber yet upbeat letter from C.E.O. Bezos himself, advising that this magical Kindle is once more in stock. Hallelujah!

The letter goes on to invite us to read president Bezos’ just released (April 14th) annual Letter to Shareholders. He goes on to explain that he doesn’ ordinarily link to this sort of communication from the Amazon home page (I’d hate to think what would happen to Amazon’s sales if he got in the habit of doing so), but, Bezos explains, “this letter is all about the Kindle,”mas if that would help us form some sort of logical connection in our minds about the appearance of this missive.

On behalf of my readers, and in the interest of Kindle-lovers everywhere, I clicked on the link and a 5-page PDF file slowly overwhelmed my browser window. The last three pages are the shareholder letter; the first page-and-a-half contain Bezos’ verbose paean to the Kindle.

It takes until page 2, paragraph 2 to get a sense of why the Kindle has turned Bezos into a born again eBooker. Here are his insights:

1. “We change our tools, and then our tools change us.” (A widely-accepted view of the impact of technology.)

2. Writing “changed us dramatically.” (Well, yes!)

3. Gutenberg made books cheaper, and “physical books ushered in a new way of collaborating and learning.” (Amongst many, many other things, Jeff. See Elizabeth Eisenstein’s The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, available on Amazon at an 11% discount, or for 25 cents less at Barnes and Noble.)

4. “Lately, networked tools such as desktop computers, laptops, cell phones and PDAs have changed us too.” (No problem there.)

5. “(Networked tools have) shifted us more toward information snacking (sic), and I would argue toward shorter attention spans.” (I recommend reading Web usability guru Jakob Nielsen’s famous and prescient 1997 column “How Users Read on the Web,” which begins with the memorable line: “They don’t.” Nielsen continues: “People rarely read Web pages word by word; instead, they scan the page, picking out individual words and sentences.” So is the issue really shorter attention spans, or new techniques for coping with the vastly increased amount of textual information we’re asked to consume each day?)

6. “Kindle is purpose-built for long-form reading. We hope Kindle and its successors may gradually and incrementally move us over years into a world with longer spans of attention, providing a counterbalance to the recent proliferation of info-snacking tools.”

OK, I’ve got it. Without quoting any evidence, Bezos warns that new digital tools are inducing a form of ADD in the public at large. I’ll look into the research for you, Mr. Bezos, and report my findings shortly on this site in the Literacy section. In the meantime please peruse my updated section on eBooks: I am not without bias towards the supposed wonders of eBook technology.

Though the letter is evangelical in tone, Bezos forgets the apocryphal preacher’s advice on a successful sermon: “First, I tell them what I’m going to tell them, then I tell them, then I tell them what I just told them” Perhaps he was information snacking when he wrote the letter.

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To Read or Not To Read

November 24, 2007

My last blog entry referred to a groundbreaking report just issued by IBM on the future of advertising. Also issued this week was a long-awaited report from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), To Read or Not To Read, “the most complete and up-to-date report of the nation’s reading trends and — perhaps most important — their considerable consequences.”

This is a follow-up report to Reading at Risk, a ground-breaking study from the NEA issued in 2004. I cover this report extensively in my section on book publishing.

Quoting from the new report, “The story the data tell is simple, consistent, and alarming. Although there has been measurable progress in recent years in reading ability at the elementary school level, all progress appears to halt as children enter their teenage years. There is a general decline in reading among teenage and adult Americans. Most alarming, both reading ability and the habit of regular reading have greatly declined among college graduates.”

The two reports taken together will change your view of the future of publishing generally, and more specifically of the future of book publishing.

A few key data points:

– Nearly half of all Americans ages 18 to 24 read no books for pleasure.

– The percentage of 18- to 44-year-olds who read a book fell 7 points from 1992 to 2002.

– The percentage of 17-year-olds who read nothing at all for pleasure has doubled over a 20-year period.

– 20% of the reading time of middle and high school students is shared by TV-watching, video/computer game playing, instant messaging, e-mailing or Web surfing.

– Although nominal spending on books grew from 1985 to 2005, average annual household spending on books dropped 14% when adjusted for inflation.

The report is 100-pages long, too long to properly summarize here. It is however available to download without charge. Much of the report covers what the NEA views as the consequences in the decline in reading, including lower levels of academic achievement, decreased performance in the job market and the reduced likelihood to become active in civic and cultural life, most notably in volunteerism and voting. This is outside the direct scope of the future of publishing, although nonetheless provocative. When the most positive expression contained within a report is a prayer that officials will be moved to take action because they’re so upset by the completely bleak implications of the data, you’ve got some troubling information within. Essential reading, assuming you still can!

Note 1: There’s additional data, less alarming in a 2005 Gallup survey noting that “about half of Americans also say they have read more than five books in the past year, not much different from the number reported a decade and a half ago.”

Note 2: In 2012 Pew Internet published a survey called “Younger Americans’ Reading and Library Habits.” It notes that “high schoolers (ages 16-17) and college-aged adults (ages 18-24), along with adults in their thirties, are especially likely to have read a book in the past year, while adults ages 65 and older are the least likely to have read a book in that time span.”

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