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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

Analog music is coming back. What does that say about digital reading?

I like to look for parallels between what has unfolded in the music industry and what seems to be happening in the book world. Music, its production and consumption, went digital a few years ago, and so to a great degree has the world of books and reading. The way we make books — from the writer transmitting the text for editing, to the publisher sending final layout to print — has entirely gone digital, and many of us readers — more and more, many say, an irrestistible wave — are reading books digitally. As with music listening, many say, the old way of reading is on its way out. Forever.

But hold on a second.

The latest news from the music world is that vinyl records are back, and in a strikingly strong way. Not everyone, it turns out, wants to have a purely digital music-buying and listening experience. And what demographic is the biggest audience for old-style vinyl? Geezers, right?

No. College kids. And what does this suggest for the book world? The idea I’m building here might already be coming clear — but hang with me just a bit as I frame it up.

Weaned on CDs, They’re Reaching for Vinyl,” the New York Times reports in a June 9 news feature. When the music business went digital in the 1980s, reporter Allan Kozinn reminds us, vinyl died away — save for a few diehard collectors who said “an LP’s grooves yielded warmth and depth that the CD’s digital code could not match. But the market largely ignored them," Kollin writes. "Record labels shuttered their LP pressing plants, except for a few that pressed mostly dance music.” And most of us figured that was that.

But it wasn’t. “These days, every major label and many smaller ones are releasing vinyl, and most new releases have a vinyl version,” the Times reports. Bands “with a predominately college-age audience” are selling multiple thousands of vinyl releases. More and more classic rock albums are being re-released on plastic. “About a dozen pressing plants have sprung up in the United States ... and they say business is so brisk that they are working to capacity.”

How does this relate to books and reading? Well, the findings of the book business’s most comprehensive annual survey have also been published. And, reports BookStats 2013:

• Sales of trade book — general-interest fiction and nonfiction for adults, young adults and children — have “experienced significant growth” since 2011.

• eBook sales have grown by 45 percent since 2011, and now make up 20 percent of the trade market. However,

• “While eBooks keep growing, hardcover and trade paperback formats continued to hold steady in 2012.” The strongest contributor to this healthy picture is fiction, for adults, young adults and children.

In music, none of us would argue that vinyl will ever again become the dominant vehicle for consumers — but LPs are reclaiming a more and more significant piece of the market. And why? The key is in the Times’s lead: it’s the “warmth and depth” of the listener’s experience with LPs.

Now, I love music but I cannot tell the difference between an mp3 file and an album track. And the older way of storing and listening to music is so much more cumbersome than using an iPod. Paper books are more cumbersome, too: you can carry God knows how many books on a Kindle, while few of us want to lug more than one, maybe two paperbacks in our briefcase or beach bag.

But. And here is my argument. I honestly believe that paper books will remain our primary shared medium of choice for reading — because, unlike the very subtle difference between analog and digital vehicles for listening, there are huge, obvious, tactile and emotional differences between reading a book on paper and on an e-reader. A printed book you can feel. You have a physical relationship with it. An eBook feels and seems more like a digital imitation of a book. It is just ... not ... the same.

These days I don’t see more and more people reading Kindles when I travel. And because I travel to visit middle schools, I also get to observe young adolescents, who are the most pivotal audience in any communications trend; and young teens are still overwhelmingly reading books on paper. Some do have Kindles, and some do read shorter stuff on their smart phones. As do most of us, these days.

But young teens, the bellwethers and first adopters of pretty much every new-wave communications technology, are not rushing to adopt e-readers. When I ask them about this, they don’t seem to think e-readers are especially cool. Teens are obsessed with their smart phones, sure; but they still read books — which they do, a lot more than most adults believe — overwhelmingly on paper.

I believe that’s for two key reasons: because the vast majority of parents are still introducing their children to reading on printed picture books, and because paper books feel like books. You have a relationship with a physical book. It keeps you company. A really good one becomes a friend in your life — sometimes a lifesaving friend. And when you are 13, you may really, really need that.

An e-book? It’s a little more convenient. In comparison, that’s a pretty pale advantage.

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