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The E-Reading Age

Dispatches from PS Blog Editor Claire Harlan Orsi

By now it’s old news: Prairie Schooner is on Kindle! Don’t worry: our 86 year old print magazine isn’t going anywhere. But as Ted Wheeler (PS’s Web Editor and the man who made the transition to Kindle possible) says, the e-reader format of the magazine will “offer long-time readers of the journal a new way to enjoy PS, and expand our audience to include literary readers with devices whose normal stable of journals might not be available as an e-book.”

As hip and “with it” as I like to think we are, the reality is that our incorporation of the e-reader format is just keeping pace with the rest of the country. According to a recent Pew Research Poll, 43% of Americans have read some form of e-book or book-like text in the past year.

Now, I mentioned in a previous post that I like to keep on top of trends, be it in reading Reality Fiction or wearing black plastic-framed glasses. This e-reading trend, however, seems to have passed me by so far. It’s among those life steps I’m seriously considering taking, along with watching Breaking Bad and spending a week without dairy, but I just haven’t gotten there yet. I attribute my reluctance to the typical technophobia of those of us who occupy ourselves with the most artisanal of pastimes—creative writing—and who tend to consider ourselves (rather stupidly) “above” the latest gadget. Then there’s that nostalgic crap about the feel of the book, the heft of the spine and the musty odor of the pages, all of which I thoroughly buy into. But recently while turning the pages of a book that shall not be named I got the worst paper cut ever, which caused me to bleed all over the Circulation Desk of the Northwestern University library as I thought: Now is the time for an e-reader.

Pretty much everyone I’ve talked to who has one of these devices seems pretty enthusiastic about it. Take my friends Courtney and Brittney, both PhD students in the math department here at UNL. “I read more books now, and a greater variety,” says Courtney. “It's easy to remember to bring the Kindle along, and I've always got a number of books ready to go. I'm more likely to impulse buy a book after seeing a review in the New Yorker or the Times or on NPR, and I manage to read about half of these.” Brittney has also increased her book consumption, mostly because of the portability of the device: “I have the NOOK app on my phone. So if I'm sitting somewhere, like say waiting at the Dr.'s office, I can just pull out my phone and start reading.” And also: “When I go on a trip I can load several books onto it an save myself the space of having to pack several books.”

There’s the convenience argument, which works on an individual level, but there’s also an argument for e-readers revitalizing reading culture as a whole. Eric Jones, guest blogger for Prairie Schooner and manager of the Nook desk at Barnes and Noble writes that, “the easier it is for people to read and distribute books, the more people will read. It's already become much easier for writers to publish new material for the digital market place and the lower pricing of digital content means that it's easier to acquire titles.”

From his helm at the Nook desk Eric has a prime view into both the possibilities of e-reading and the undercurrent of anxiety that seems to run through discussions of this sort. “The most common anxiety is that print books will evaporate because of e-books, which is not entirely ungrounded,” he writes. “When a new format for anything becomes available the increased competition means that the market will have to adjust, but there is no debating the strength of the printed book format. Just like records, which are still a preferred format among music collectors, the physical book isn't going anywhere as long as there is a demand.” (There’s statistical backing for that optimism, too. The same Pew poll cited above showed that 72% of Americans had read a printed book in the last year.)

According to my scattershot anecdotal research, if I can get past the idea that buying a Kindle or a Nook means “killing the radio star,” I can look forward to any number of positive changes in my reading habits.

For example, book size: “I've noticed an increase in the size of books that I'm able to read because of my Nook,” Eric writes. “I can read Moby Dick on my iPhone while standing in the line at the grocery store, and then continue reading it on my Nook when I get home.”

And then there’s the control you have over the look of the document: “You can adjust the font and margins to suit the type of reading that you're doing. Large margins and type face are conducive to quick reading, while thin margins and small font make you slow down,” Eric says.

You can have your book read to you, as Courtney points out: “My Kindle has a text-to-speech option, and I really like to listen to it while I fall asleep. I've been "reading" the Nero Wolfe stories this way--nothing like a computer voice talking about crime and murder and dames!”

Then there’s the important matter of publicizing your reading. E-readers afford more privacy, which is unfortunate if you want people on the bus to know you’re reading Dostoevsky, but a blessing for other reading material. “It's freeing to be able to read a book like Bonk on an airplane without feeling self-conscious,” Courtney says.

Ease of salacious reading: one of many benefits accompanying Prairie Schooner’s bold step into the e-reading age.