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Can E-Books Make Society and Education Better?

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

As recently as 2007, there was note of an alarming trend of young people not reading (National Endowment for the Arts, Nov. 2007). Both my spouse (a college literature professor) and I also noticed this trend. For me, the revelation came when, during a course on literacy, I asked my students to name their favorite books as part of our first day of class introductions. Shockingly most of them did not have a favorite book, and many of them that did, referenced the great Dr. Seuss as their favorite author. These were college students, many of whom, when pressed on the issue, admitted that they hadn’t read a book for pleasure recently. Data from the 2007 National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) report, To Read or Not to Read, supports this anecdotal evidence as shown in the following chart:

The report further revealed that:

  • "65% of college freshmen read for pleasure for less than an hour per week or not at all."
  • "The percentage of non-readers among these students has nearly doubled—climbing 18 points since they graduated from high school."
  • "By the time they become college seniors, one in three students read nothing at all for pleasure in a given week."
    (NEA, 2007) supports this anecdotal evidence as shown in the following chart:

The report also indicated that this change is not affected positively even when Internet use and online reading are factored in, and that Americans in general are spending considerably less on books than in the ten years prior to 2005.

Things Are Looking Up
However an April 5, 2012 report by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, The rise of e-reading, indicates that e-readers may be having a surprising effect on the reading habits off all Americans, even those in the 18-24 age bracket. According to the survey:

  • “Our December 2011 survey found that those age 16 and older who own tablets or e-book reading devices are more likely than others to read for every reason: for pleasure, for personal research, for current events, and for work or school.”
  • “Some 89% of e-reading device owners say they read at least occasionally for pleasure, compared with 80% of all Americans 16 and older. Some 49% read for pleasure every day or almost every day (vs. 36% of all those 16 and older).”
  • “Similarly, 89% of e-reading device owners say they read at least occasionally in order to do research on specific topics that interest them (vs. 74% of all those 16 and older). Some 36% read for this reason daily or almost every day, compared with 24% of the general population.”
  • “Some 88% of e-reading device owners (vs. 78% of all those 16 and older) say they read at least occasionally to keep up with current events. People read most frequently for this reason: 64% say they do it daily or almost every day (vs. 50% of all 16 and older).”
  • “Some 71% of e-reading device owners say they read for work or school (vs. 56% of all 16 and older); almost half (49%) do so daily (compared with 36%).”
    (PEW, 2012)

This trend in reading on e-readers is an encouraging sign for our children, the colleges and universities they attend, and the country as a whole. Here’s why.

E-Readers and Literacy
One of the fundamental ideas behind literacy, and intellectual development in general, is that reading, regardless of the material read – literature, textbooks, comic books, teen ‘zines, trading cards – promotes the development of lifelong habits of intellectual curiosity, active learning, vocabulary development, and overall literacy (Lewis & Samuels, 2005). Not reading won’t kill you, but it will also make you a less interesting, engaged, and intellectual person. The increase in overall reading, attributable to e-readers and portable electronic media devices (the Pew study also includes listening to audio books) makes for a more literate population.

In addition to this basic type of literacy, recent studies have begun to demonstrate that reading literature also helps to develop an individual’s emotional literacy. Reading about an event or the inner working of someone else’s mind or emotions stimulates the human brain to experience those same feelings or to essentially have the same experience in terms of memory that they would have if they actually did the activity or experienced the emotions themselves. One of the hidden benefits of the e-reading explosion is that it is helping to create a society of individuals who are more empathetic and open to alternative points of view. The value of that for a society wrestling with racial and class-based internal conflicts cannot be emphasized enough.

E-Readers and College Readiness
The main activity of a college education is critical thinking and intellectual engagement: most of the background work for this endeavor is done through reading. The college model is primarily one in which the student reads information or literature on their own, and then engages in a discussion of that material with the professor and fellow students. If students aren’t readers when they enter college, they are at a huge disadvantage in terms of being able to keep up with the required material and to understand what they read so that they can be intelligent contributors to classroom discussions.

Reading more and more often builds up habits that are essential to success in college (Lewis & Samuels, 2005). Any increase in reading is a benefit, particularly when balanced against the decline in reading rates that were being observed in the early part of the century.

E-Readers and Our Culture of Intellectualism
The final and most important benefit of an increase in reading prompted by e-readers is the potential to create a more intellectually engaged society in which education and academic interests are valued. The idea of "All of the Above" education (Marquis, 2012) relies on having a population that is engaged in and responsible for their own learning in order to be effective. Reading is, and for the foreseeable future will remain, the primary avenue through which people acquire information that they may later turn into knowledge. Ubiquitous video, or some other information technology, may one day overtake the written word as the foundation of our literacy, but for the moment, reading and writing are the keys to full and fruitful participation in human society. Increasing reading, regardless of the medium or context, helps to create a culture that appreciates the value of the written word and its centrality to our continued societal growth.

The Struggle Continues
While the Pew report does give hope that there is a reversal of the reading trends in American society spurred by the rise of the e-reader, there is still a significant mountain to climb. According to the survey data in the chart below, a full 19% of Americans over the age of 18 read NO books in the 12 months prior to the survey. That number indicates a significant increase when compared to Gallup data from 2005. Perhaps as the saturation of e-readers increases, students become accustomed to using them in schools, and the cost of e-pubs decreases, we will see a rise in the percentage of people who read one, ten, or even fifty or more books annually, as 13% of the population did in 1978 (Pew, P. 19). Imagine the benefits that reading at that historic level could produce for society.


(PEW, 2012)

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