Reading: Literacy and the Economy, Brain and Educational Benefits, E-books and Paper Books

Reading:  Who will read? What are the benefits of reading? How will texts be dispersed and acquired? These aspects of reading are much discussed: the New Yorker and Fortune both recently had long articles on e-books, and you can’t go to a writers’ and readers’ gathering these days without somebody asking about them.

I was at three related events recently: the Future of Reading conference at the Rochester Institute of Technology, on June 9, Idea City in Toronto, on June 17, and the meeting of the International Short Story in English: The Border as Fiction, on June 19. Here were some of the things I and others said about reading:

Literacy and the economy: You have to be literate to use the Internet. Literacy is also required in order to lead an “economic life,” and the cellphone and the Internet are facilitating increased economic possibilities, especially for women (you don’t have to leave your house) and especially in developing countries (you don’t need expensive land lines and Point of Sale hookups to do mobile banking and also point of sale transactions via your phone). Online security is still however an issue.

As stated at Davos in February, women are the fastest-growing economic group on the planet. With increased literacy and access to information and the possibility of an “economic life” – facilitated through microfinance plans such as the Grameen Bank – the birth rate and infant mortality rate both go down, making it increasingly possible for families once locked into poverty to extricate themselves, as more family resources can be devoted to children, and more children can survive to benefit. (As the carrying power of the earth re: the human race has probably already been exceeded, and as millions are now  dying of malnutrition, starvation, pollution, and inadequate water supplies, this imbalance is a problem that will either have to be solved by us or that will be “solved” by physics, chemistry, and resource wars, in very unpleasant ways – as financial journalist Diane Francis pointed out at Idea City, while regaling us with tales of the death threats she had received for writing about this subject.)

Brain benefits, educational gains:

Reading, unlike talking, doesn’t come with a built-in human program activated simply by witnessing others doing it. It has to be learned.  Everything we do is built on a pre-existing brain “platform,” and the platform for reading appears to be the one for object recognition – such as—for instance – predators, prey, and food items. (Devour any books lately? Been devoured by them?)

Reading actually makes you smarter, as neurological activity during the act of reading increases, and the connections are both wide and deep. For a book that summarizes what we know so far, see Proust and the Squid, by  Maryanne Wolf.                                         .

We are told that the single best thing you can do for your child’s future success is to have books in the house. Having a school library with a librarian in it increases the average score by 20%, even if no other change in the school is made. Schools are now trying to put back these facilities, that were dumped several decades ago as a “frill.”

Reading and E-books:

Reading is not decreasing, as feared – in fact it’s increasing, as one must be able to read in order to use the Internet – but it’s being done in different ways.

I speculate that the availability of e-books is actually increasing reading, as e-books are cheap, portable en mass, and instantly available. I also speculate – based on the two previous blogposts I did on this subject, and the wide range of comments received – that readers, given the choice, would like to have both formats – the e-book to take on travels long or short, and to read to see if the book is one you might want to keep; and the paper book for favourites, gifts, cozy reading at home (in bed and bath, for instance). There are also some who say that screen reading bothers their eyes, though others are grateful for the power to enlarge type.

The hazards of keeping books in e-form only can be summed up in one sentence: Would you keep your will in e-form only? (No: a)It could be hacked and changed. b) With internet failures – electrical shortages, solar-flare meltdowns, internet failure or overload, computer and backup failure, changes in technology that render previous forms unreadable – your will could disappear. c) Your will would not be a legal document.) And, as we have seen, your e-book can suddenly vanish from your e-reader, deleted by the e-company.

The Internet is dependent on energy, and energy is still dependent on oil.

So, looking down the path towards the future: unless the world solves the dreaded oil/pollution/global warming problem, e-forms—though convenient – are not totally reliable. (Neither are paper books. Over the centuries, millions have been burned….)

One other advantage to paper books: They make it much harder for anyone else to track what you’ve been reading.


This is from near the beginning of the Rochester Institute speech:

“What people usually mean when they start talking about “the future of reading” is not really reading at all, but different methods of transmitting and preserving texts. They want to skip any palaver about alphabets and such, and get straight to whether the paper book as we have known it since Gutenberg is about to go the way of the cuneiform clay tablet and the scroll. They want to leap to the Kindle, and to the Sony Reader, and to the Kobo and the Nook, and thus to e-books, and internet theft, and to what all of this e-energy might do, not to reading as such, but to publishing, and thus to the author’s ability to make even the sort of paltry living that most authors do in fact make, if they make any living at all. And we shall indeed discuss these matters in due time, for I am as interested in them as anyone. Well, maybe not quite as interested, because at my age I’m not looking at an infinite vista down which there lurks some sort of e-troll that might leap out of an e-shrub and tear apart my paper life, and utterly destroy my prospects in twenty-five years’ time. I don’t worry much about that twenty-five-year timeline. Just get me through the next ten without undue attrition, and add in a footnote in which I avoid the print equivalent of drooling and babbling and wandering into strange parking lots, and I will be sufficiently content. It’s beginning to be flattering to be told I am really amazing for my age.

But the young – among which I number all of you – for the young it is a different business. All of this e-stuff might seriously affect the shape of a young’s future life. Such a young might have to throw over his or her dreams of being, say, Norman Mailer, or Joyce Carol Oates, or even Chekhov or Alice Munro or Jane Austen or William Faulkner or Virginia Woolf or … but the list is very long indeed. Let’s just say that, in view of developing conditions, such a young might decide to go into dentistry or chartered accountancy, just as its parents would have preferred, instead to hi-ho-ing off to Paris or Spain or Mexico or the wilds of Cleveland to hole up in a garret or cellar or creative writing workshop in order to write masterpieces. For what good is a masterpiece if you are unable to enter the immortality and/or big publisher’s advance sweepstakes?  If, in a word, you are unable to publish it? Does a tree falling in the forest make a sound if there’s no one around to hear it? Does a manuscript that lies in a drawer unread have any real existence in the world?”

And at the end of the speech, I thanked my 97-year-old aunt, author Joyce Barkhouse  (Pit Pony), for having been one of the first people who took me seriously as a writer, and quoted – from recent newspaper article about her that mentions one of her old favourite poems, Strickland Gilliland’s “The Reading Mother:”

You may have tangible wealth untold;
Caskets of jewels and coffers of gold.
Richer than I you can never be —
I had a Mother who read to me.

Will that mother soon be an e-mother? Who knows?

You may have tangible wealth untold;
Caskets of jewels and coffers of gold.
Richer than I you can never be —
I had a Mother who read to me.


Filed under 1, YOTF Tour Blog

12 responses to “Reading: Literacy and the Economy, Brain and Educational Benefits, E-books and Paper Books

  1. Great post!

    I don’t really wonder/worry about the future of paper books… and with or without e-books I was never really counting on making a living as an author (poetry has never really paid much of anything to anyone) so I don’t fret about that either.

    I make very small scale one of a kind editions of my books – and I give them to people I believe will appreciate them.

    I think the future of publishing will look much like the past – it will be dominated by big companies – and if you can deliver them the sort of bland big product they are looking for – you will enjoy the same sort of “success” that the Dan Browns of the world enjoy now. If you would rather write other things, you will be read by the sort of people who treasure books by bp nichol.

    E-books change the method of delivery – but they do nothing to damage the superstructure that currently lords over publishing. Small publishers have always had it tough. I actually think the internet, if anything, will eventually help the less ordinary authors shine.

    Gray’s elegy on a country churchyard makes it clear that genius has long been left fallow and ignored by the mainstream. That is largely a product of the sort of society we live in rather than anything else…

  2. Jim

    The e-book idea might have appealed to me 10 years ago, when I was doing a great deal of travelling. But at this point – in retirement – I alternate between my laptop and a book on my lap. There are already too many electronic gadgets around me and I am gradually eliminating some of them. For a start, the television set is gone.

    There is no substitute for a nicely bound g-book.

  3. Margaret Mair

    An interesting (as always) post. On the subject of e-books: as someone who lives a good portion of the time on a small sailboat, they are of great interest to me. The devices on which I am supposed to read them are another matter. I am hoping that part of the future lies with the publishing of e-books that are not tied to any particular device, particularly any device that allows another party access to what is supposed to be mine – unless I specifically choose to give them such access. Only a dream?

  4. Jo

    Much to ponder, indeed. At a time when so many countries are making cuts in education spending it’s good to have a reminded of the economic impact of reading, for much as I cherish it simply as a wonderful thing I know not everyone does.

    Much as I’d love to make money from writing though, I think the most important thing is to be read. I’d happily give an e-book away for free if it encouraged even a few people to buy the ‘real’ thing.

  5. Pingback: Margaret Atwood on the future of books | Mother Atwood |

  6. Pingback: Margaret Atwood on multiplatform « Magazines Online

  7. I prefer a good old fashion book to the new e-books, I love the smell of paper and the coffee stains on books.

  8. Mike Barnard

    Great post, Margaret. I just broke 75 books — dominantly fiction but with a handful of non-fiction — on my Sony Reader, and a little while before that purchased and loaded up another Sony Reader for my wife. We do travel for business and pleasure, and the luxury of finishing an 800 page novel midflight and switching to another 500 pager while still being able to carry luggage on is great.

    Part of what is interesting to me is how people find out about new books, and what they do when they hear of them or see them. The process of acquiring a new book is — at present — vastly different. As a case in point, last week I spent a couple of hours browsing the shelves at Chapters taking pictures of the covers of books I thought might be interesting with my cell phone. When I returned home, I opened up Amazon for the reviews and three different ebooks stores I buy from, only one of which, Kobo, is affiliated with either of the two big box stores.

    I also use the Literature Map extensively to get recommendations of authors similar to authors I like.

    There’s also the oddly social aspect of ebooks. They are new enough that people see me reading it, ask about it, and recommend books they’ve loved. It’s happened a dozen times in the past seven months in 4 cities. Burying my nose in a book doesn’t work nearly as well at fending off strangers.

    Another part of what interests me is the ecosystem ripples. There’s a short lived ebook dividend hitting libraries and second-hand book stores as people move to ereaders and realize those groaning shelves and boxes of might-read-again books can now be mercilessly culled. But once a significant percentage of the people that actually buy books new — the real target market of most ebooks — shifts to electronic form, library and second-hand book store donations and a host of other secondary economy elements disappears.

    The new economy books “Free” and “The Long Tail” by Chris Anderson both have enormous implications for electronic books. With nothing ever going out of stock or being hard to find, and with the potential for 95% of books being read free to market the 5% of upsale opportunities, the challenge to authors and publishers is greater.

    I’m looking forward to seeing how this plays out over the next two decades.


  9. Brittany Svoboda

    As an English teacher in the States, this topic is very close to my heart. I struggle with trying to instill in high school students a love of reading and writing, while at the same time meeting the demands of government imposed standards. The two are often at odds. While ebooks and online literacy seem like a good idea, my old-fashioned ideas about reading (ok, so I’m 36), constantly find themselves in conflict with kids who seldom, if ever, pick up anything to read for fun.

    On a side note–I’ve been teaching your poem “Elegy for the Giant Tortoises”. Are there any recordings of you reading that or any of your poetry available?

  10. Why don`t you publish addition informations on the benefits of our brains neurological activites as written by Marryanne Wolf ,”Proust and the Squid”.

  11. corrie loren

    Your blog made me think about just how overly accessible writing has become. I guess that’s my biggest head tilt at the ebook wave. I’ve watched people who call themselves readers – read. They don’t remember characters or allow themselves time to think. They mock the idea of having time to read a book more than once. EBooks seem to be just another way for people to spend more money in order to consume in excess with ease. But are there really that many books out there worth reading?

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