Elgan: Will cell phones save books?

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

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?

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

Half of Japan's top 10 best-selling books last year -- half! -- started out as cell phone-based books, according to the New York Times.

The books-on-phones genre started when a home-page-making Web site company realized that people in Japan were writing serialized novels on their blogs, and figured out how to autocreate cell phone-based novels from the blog entries.

The popularity of these blog novels on cell phones sparked huge interest among readers in writing such novels. Last month, the site passed the 1 million novel mark.

Some of these amateur writers become so famous on the cell phone medium that the big publishing houses seek them out and offer lucrative deals for print versions. The No. 5 best-selling print book in Japan last year, according to the Times, was written first on a cell phone by a girl during her senior year in high school.

One of the apparent reasons that cell phone literature has taken off in Japan is that so many Japanese people, including students, have long daily commutes in trains too crowded for open books. The size and portability of cell phones have made them the most important source for all media, including "printed" media.

Which raises the question: Can the English-speaking world replicate Japan's cell phone book craze?

Cell phone books in America

At first glance, the conditions that drove Japan to embrace cell phone novels, including the primacy of cell phones over PCs and TVs, appear not to be present in the U.S.

However, there is clearly at least some unmet demand for cell phone books here. I asked readers of my blog, The World Is My Office, about whether they currently do, or would, read books on their cell phones. A reader named Jonathan wrote: "The size of the screen has never been an issue. Having to recharge the phone has never been an issue. Traditionalists who talk about the intimacy of cozying up with a good book seem to forget that it is the material that sweeps you away. I become just as engrossed in a book on my phone as any print book I've read."

If Jonathan represents a huge potential market for English-language cell phone books, why hasn't the genre taken off? I think another blog reader answered that question exactly when he wrote: "As an aspiring writer, I'm fascinated by this genre. How does a writer access the venue for cell phone novels? I've searched the Net and came up empty-handed."

I think the decline in reading is caused by the same thing that's causing the decline in television -- one too many media like books and TV are losing out to more engaging participatory media.

In other words, I think cell phone novels are hot in Japan and not in America because the Japanese have made novels participatory, and we haven't figured out how to do that yet.

People, especially young people, prefer media created by peers or artists, or writers they perceive to be peers.

Even novels started out as largely participatory adventures and romances in Europe -- just like Japanese cell phone novels today. A tiny group of people had the means and the education to write, and they wrote letters with a frequency that would make some modern bloggers blush.

Their books were "consumed" exclusively by their own narrow peer group, a small collection of lettered aristocrats and professional story writers who could relate to each others' experiences. Their letters constantly referenced books, and books were enriched by the culture of writing letters. Stories, ideas, plots, characters and other elements were shared and borrowed, stolen and copied.

Gradually, books got both cheaper and better and nonaristocrats got richer. People outside this group started to read novels, many in an "aspirational" capacity. They wanted to "enrich" themselves by immersing themselves into socioeconomic or intellectual groups higher than their own.

In that sense, Japan's cell phone novel craze takes us back to the origins of novel writing: People use available publishing technology to have a dialog -- not a monologue -- with their peer group.

The engaging nature of participatory media doesn't require actual participation, by the way. One of the compelling elements of popular music, for example, is that fans feel like bands and artists are part of their world and vice versa. There's a constant feedback loop in clothing and hairstyles between bands and their fans. They share vocabulary and a world view. Kids aspire to become rock and rap stars.

TV and books, on the other hand, look and feel like media handed down from on high. Young people don't have a sense of how this content is created or that they could do it themselves. They feel increasingly alienated from it, especially since they now have instant messaging, YouTube, MySpace and other media that feels more like a conversation within their own peer group.

Another point worth making: I don't have the data to back this up, but I'm convinced that young people today are reading more than any other generation in history. By that I mean they're passing their eyes over and "processing" more words. But the words are coming in the form of IMs, text messages, blogs, social networking messages and other nonbook material. They gravitate to this not because it's trash, but because it's participatory. They're reading as part of a dialog that involves writing.

"Literacy" isn't about passively reading, it's about reading and writing. If we want to increase the reading of books, we'll need to figure out how to increase the writing of books, especially novels.

Can we emulate Japan? Yes. But the secret to getting young people excited about books isn't about taking our existing published books and formatting them for cell phones. Instead, we need to figure out how to let readers publish their own books in a way that can reach a mass audience -- not just on obscure blogs, but on all media: print, online, audio and, yes, even cell phones.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. He blogs about the technology needs, desires and successes of mobile warriors in his Computerworld blog, The World Is My Office. Contact Mike at mike.elgan@elgan.com or his blog, The Raw Feed.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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