When Amazon launched the Kindle e-reader in 2007, many commentators predicted the death of the print book. However, less than a decade later, print book sales are on the rise and e-book sales are plummeting. In the United States alone last year print book sales rose between five and seven percent, and e-book sales dropped close to twenty percent.
What could be the cause of the dramatic change? And will these trends continue as we progress even further into the digital age? Several recent investigations have found that a possible reason for the return to old-fashioned print books could be that many people are suffering from a digital overload. Now that we rely on our smartphones, tablets, and computers for most of our daily information and work, we spend the majority of our day focusing on digital screens, images, and displays. Researchers have found that prolonged exposure to screens, including using e-readers at night, is having a negative impact on human’s ability to fall asleep and sleep soundly.
Therefore, some commentators posit the rise in print books over the last few years, corresponds to trends in periodic digital ‘detoxes.’ We cannot avoid screens at work or for fun, but we can still read paper books for pleasure, and ‘un-plug’ for a few moments from the increasingly invasive digital world. A recent study conducted by American University found that 92% of college students preferred learning from print books. Many students cited the potential for distraction, from a never-ending supply of online forums, games, and social media outlets, as a reason why online or digital reading was not as helpful.
Though this appears to be a victory for print books, some journalists have noted the negative side effects of the impact of smart phones on our reading habits. Though we have immediate access to information on any imaginable subject, many have argued that the instant gratification given by smart phones has shortened our attention span. What impact does this have on reading? As we all become adept at ‘shallow browsing’ or skimming our newsfeeds for bits of information, we are usurping concerted reading times and replacing them with short bursts of reading. This then correlates to a difference not only in how people are reading, but what they are reading.
So, even though it appears we have avoided the death of the print book for the time being, our shortened attention spans may signal the slow death for reading literature. With entire generations socialized to expect immediate results, how can we expect them to be able to handle, much less enjoy, reading 864-page tombs like Anna Karenina? Even though people still enjoy the ability to turn a physical page, how many pages will they be willing to turn before they lose their focus?