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Elgan: Will cell phones save books?

'People don't read anymore'; Are mobile phones our last hope for literacy?

January 31, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - A recent essay in The New Yorker called "Twilight of the Books: What will life be like if people stop reading?" tracks a long decline in the popularity of reading books in the U.S. since at least 1937.

Worse, according to the essay: "Americans are losing not just the will to read but even the ability. According to the Department of Education, between 1992 and 2003 the average adult's skill in reading prose slipped one point on a 500-point scale, and the proportion who were proficient -- capable of such tasks as "comparing viewpoints in two editorials" -- declined from 15% to 13."

To me, even more alarming than the loss of reading skill -- and probably related to it -- is that many young people have lost interest in books.

Why American kids hate books

Apple Inc. CEO Steve Jobs recently criticized Amazon's Kindle e-book reader by saying that "It doesn't matter how good or bad the product is; the fact is that people don't read anymore." He went on to say that "Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year." (It turns out that the correct number is 27%, not 40%, but Jobs does have a point.)

I think I understand why Jobs has come to believe that the book-buying public isn't worth serving. Apple does a great job making all kinds of media available through iTunes -- not just music, movies and TV shows, but podcasts and audiobooks sold through Audible.com. (We'll see how long the Audible.com relationship lasts now that Amazon has purchased the company.) And guess what? The music sells like crazy, and TV show and movie sales are growing fast. Meanwhile, podcasts aren't nearly as popular even though most are free, and hardly anyone buys audiobooks for their iPods. If people won't even listen to written works, why would they actually read them?

Much of the world is following America down the literary toilet. But one interesting exception is, of all places, Japan.
In an essay in The American Thinker, writer Lawrence Murray warns of a "new Dark Age" brought about by a combination of information overload, the "passivation of leisure" and the "triumph of triviality." In other words, technology in general has caused our culture to evolve into one in which long-form books can't compete for our attention against the onslaught of Internet celebrity gossip, YouTube videos and iPod music.

Much of the world is following America down the literary toilet. But one interesting exception is, of all places, Japan.

Why Japanese kids love books

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