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2008 01 29
How Torontonians Read

A few weeks ago Steve Jobs, Chief Executive Officer of Apple (the company behind Mac computers, the elusive iPhone and the ubiquitous iPod), responded derisively to a question about Kindle, an electronic book reader marketed by Amazon. The New Yok Times quotes Jobs as replying, "It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is; the fact is that people don’t read anymore,” adding, “Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year.”

There's the possibility that Jobs is dead wrong, in the same sense as the comment once widely (and possibly erroniously) attributed to Bill Gates of Microsoft that "640K ought to be enough for anybody." There's also the possibility that Apple is working feverishly on its own electronic book reader, destined to be unleashed as a competitor to the existing e-book readers already on the market, including Sony's e-Reader.

There's also the possibility that Jobs is right, in one of two ways. Either most people don't read, and therefore books and the act of reading are dead; or most people don't read, and therefore reading will become an increaingly maligned or elite activity. History suggests some combination of the latter. When most people do not -- or cannot -- read, information and knowledge become the preserve of the powerful. At the same time, those who do read become subject to increasing scrutiny and suspicion, and may expose themselves to charges of heresy, sedition, even treason.

There are also other possibilities. That the 60% of Americans who do read more than one book a year read dozens, even hundreds of them. This seems to be the case in Canada, where (according to the latest Statistics Canada data I was able to find, dating to 1998) of the 61.3% of the population who reported reading books [a proportion depressingly similar to Jobs' current claim about Americans], nearly a third claimed to read at least a book a week and 36.2% read at least one book a month. Assuming a Canadian population of about 30 million when these data were collected, this suggests that of the 18.4 million Canadians who read books in 1998, 5.7 million people read at least one book each week and an additional 6.6 million people managed to get through a book every month or so. This suggests that in 1998, Canadians were managing to get through somewhere in the order of 400 million books a year.

Can this figure have dropped in the past decade? Might it have gone up? Has the ubiquitous presence of the internet further eroded people's willingness to read long texts (the above noted study reported that the overwhelming majority of Canadians read newspapers and magazines regularly, a century-long trend that almost certainly persists)? Might it, instead, have whetted people's appetites for books in an increasing variety of formats? And if so, why might this be the case?

In an important respect this is not primarily a question about technology: it is also a question of culture, one that matters in Toronto in some of the same ways it might matter in Iqaluit. Because it matters not only that people can or do read books, but that they are able to access culturally relevant books in the places where they actually live.

Nearly half of Toronto's population consists of immigrants, many wishing to read not only in English or French but in Gujarati, Urdu, Italian, Cantonese, Spanish, Hebrew and Arabic, and any other of the more than 100 languages spoken and read in this city. For its part, the Toronto Public Library works hard to make books available in the languages its users speak and read, and features reading lists of books available in French, Arabic, Chinese, Greek, Hindi, Italian, Korean, Polish, Russian, Spanish, Tamil and Urdu. The TPL also has multilingual collections in many additional languages.

But this is only part of the story. Books are expensive in any language, and it is a challenge for any public library to keep up not only with new books published or available but with the demand for them. The Toronto Public Library has sought other ways to meet burgeoning and increasingly diverse demand by expanding its collection to include digital books and reading materials, available for library users to download. This collection is clearly in its infancy, but it is my assumption that in the coming years the TPL's collection will include increasing proportions of digital materials. Such conditions have already been in place at university libraries for a decade, as scholarly journals have begun making electronic editions available to academic users and digital books are more common every year. The cost per subscription or book may not be significantly cheaper for the library to purchase (in some cases it may be even more expensive depending on user volume expectations), but the vastly increased accessibility for users means libraries are able to fulfil their mandates more effectively, not only to readers seeking materials in diverse languages but to users with varying abilities and accessibility needs.

This does not mean, of course, that the printed word is obsolete or that real books will disappear anytime soon. In a personal sense printed books are far more accessible than any e-reader can possibly be. Real books can be read in the bathtub. Real books invite dialogue in the form of marginal scribbles that accrete over time, a genealogy of readership. There is a visceral pleasure in holding a book or walking through a library that cannot even be imitated by an electronic book reader. A printed book provides physical testamony to a writer's version of the world: the word become flesh.

But digital books enable writers to reach specialized audiences without necessarily having to run the repressive gauntlet of monopolistic distributors and book-sellers. They create new opportunities for dangerous, subversive, heretical, revolutionary books to reach friendly as well as hostile readers. They open up space for contention, and encourage sheer curiosity. Anybody can create a digital book using any of a wide range of accessible formats. Digital books enable readers in remote locations to read books that are too expensive to ship in hard copy. And they vastly expand the linguistic accessibility of text.

And so, the question of who reads may be shifting. How we read may matter almost as much as what we read. And in this sense it is my guess that within a few years, electronic book readers will become more common, and that personal digital devices (like iPods, Blackberries and the like) will incorporate better software to accommodate digital books (which require a slightly different technical reading environment than websites or videos).

And in Toronto, how will people read? It is my assumption that we will continue to carry books on the subway, set spine to spine during rush hour and providing voyeuristic amusements to second-hand readers. We will lose or release books behind park benches. We will still steal books from libraries, or tear out or scribble on their pages. We will still seek to ban books or silence their authors.

But at the same time we might learn to appreciate the accessibility of digital books available for downloading nearly at will. We may send copies to our friends and colleagues with unprecedented ease. A person might write not just a poem but an entire dissertation in a coffee shop, reinventing scholarship on the fly. We might struggle to remember mother tongues nearly forgotten since childhood, simply because the old stories are accessible again. If we may plagiarize more easily, so too will such thefts more easily be uncovered.

How will we read? It may not matter, just as long as we do.

[Amy Lavender Harris writes regularly about Toronto literature and the imaginative qualities of cities. Her book, Imagining Toronto, is scheduled to be published by Mansfield Press in the fall of 2008.]

[Book drop image by 416style and used here under the aegis of a Creative Commons license.]
[email this story] Posted by Amy Lavender Harris on 01/29 at 11:35 AM

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