The Written Word? It's So Totally Over, According to Mr. IPod

Nobody Reads Anymore, Steve Jobs Says. YouTube Addicts Might Agree -- but What Is 'Reading,' Anyway?

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By all rights I shouldn't be writing this -- and for God's sake, you certainly shouldn't be reading it! Because reading is, officially, dead.

I have that on good authority -- from no less a trendmonger and trendsetter than Apple chief Steve Jobs, whom reporter John Markoff of The New York Times quoted last week as saying that the Amazon Kindle -- that much-hyped e-reader for wordy products such as books, newspapers and magazines -- is doomed.

Prose by any other name? The medium may be different, but the activity is the same.
Prose by any other name? The medium may be different, but the activity is the same.

"It doesn't matter how good or bad the product is," Jobs told Markoff. "The fact is that people don't read anymore. Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don't read anymore."

At this point you should go check to see what's new on YouTube.

But if you -- you freak, you anachronism, you dying breed -- are still with me, then let's try to parse the math, and Jobs' grim logic, together.

While it's generally taken for granted that the newspaper industry is doomed and the magazine industry is under siege, it's worth noting that the book-publishing industry has been holding its own. According to the Association of American Publishers, in 2006 (2007 figures aren't out yet), "trade sales of adult and juvenile books grew 2.9% to $8.3 billion, a compound growth rate of 3.7% per year since 2002. The strongest growth in this category came from adult paperback books, whose sales last year rose 8.5% to ... $2.3 billion. Adult hardbound books [grew] 4.1% to $2.6 billion."

As for Jobs' stat, it seems he extrapolated it from an old National Endowment for the Arts study, which found that in 2002, just 57% of American adults reported reading a book. Then again, according to an Associated Press-Ipson poll released last August, 27% of American adults read no books last year -- ergo, nearly three-quarters did. In fact, the poll revealed that the "typical American adult" read four books last year.

"Who are these 'people' to whom Steve Jobs is referring?" Publishers Weekly Editor in Chief Sara Nelson asked me last week. "Not the million-ish who are devouring Elizabeth Gilbert's 'Eat, Pray, Love' or the ones who line up for Harry Potter and/or James Patterson novels." She added: "All I can say is that when I sat in restaurants and airports or on buses or trains and pulled out my Kindle, I got more attention than if I'd shown up naked -- with an adorable puppy."

At this point you should type "Sara Nelson naked with an adorable puppy" into Google Image Search.

And then check to see if the Kindle is in stock on Amazon -- which it probably isn't, because almost from the moment it was introduced, the product page has displayed this notice: "Due to heavy customer demand, Kindle is temporarily sold out. We are working hard to manufacture Kindles as quickly as possible and are prioritizing orders."

In other words, Amazon is politely asking customers to be patient -- which is hilarious, because Kindle is all about instant gratification. As New York technology consultant Michael E. Gruen wrote in a comment he posted on the Silicon Alley Insider blog (about Jobs' Kindle dis), "I'll bet people are reading fewer books because they're not yet as 'on demand' as other forms of media like music and film (which Apple has solved) as well as e-magazines and blogs." Kindle is far from perfect -- I, like other observers, have disparaged its clunky look -- but with its built-in EVDO broadband modem, it's all about getting text on demand, anywhere.

Which brings up a larger point: What is reading? After all, you can use a Kindle to read Bront´┐Ż, but you can also use it to skim BoingBoing (Kindle has deals with some 250 blogs). If you're not devouring "serious" literature or old-school A-list publications, are you not technically reading? Are you effectively nonliterate? Clearly, Jobs thinks so.

How else to explain his judgment that "nobody reads" in a culture in which more and more people seem to be more obsessively engaged in producing and consuming words than, possibly, ever in the whole of human history? I'm talking about not only blogs (Technorati tracks more than 100 million of them) but social-networking communication and Twitter "tweets" and even, yes, e-mail. Think of the countless people who live vibrant, effusive, all-consuming epistolary lives who, pre-internet, might never have made the effort to write a proper ink-on-paper letter. With apologies to Gertrude Stein, a word is a word is a word -- and storytelling is storytelling is storytelling.

Yeah, even if it comes in the form of "cellphone fiction." You probably heard about (or actually read!) the New York Times' recent front-page story about the rise of that genre: terse Japanese "chick lit" written on cellphones and meant to be read on them, though an increasing number have been able to cross over to print best-sellerdom.

The Times, actually, was really slow to notice -- The Wall Street Journal covered the phenomenon last September. And when Ben Vershbow, the editorial director of the Institute for the Future of the Book (which is affiliated with the University of Southern California and funded by the MacArthur Foundation), blogged about that Journal article, his colleague Bob Stein, founder of the Institute, wrote, "This suggests that art is irrepressible, as it emerges and pokes its way through the smallest of cracks in the media firmament."

God bless you for saying that, Bob Stein -- and for having the generosity of spirit to even think it.

But, as always, it all comes down to the question of who gets to define "art."

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