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Ooh, Shiny Object! How Smart Phones Divert Readers

May 19, 2013

This Tuesday, while riding on the metro in D.C., I looked up from my copy of THE SHINING to check out what other solo passengers were doing. About 90% were checking their phones, and only about 10% were reading something – whether it was the newspaper, their Kindle, or a good old fashioned paper book.

This got me wondering. How much has modern technology, and the instant gratification it presents, affected readers’ willingness to finish a novel?

iPhones and Smart Phones present instant gratification. You can book hotel and restaurant reservations, text, and check out sports scores in seconds. And since you have to carry your phone with you anyway, it makes sense that you’d spend a ride on public transportation playing on your phone rather than reading some stuffy book. This means that while a decade ago, the average customer of public transportation might read one book a week while waiting for her stop, she now texts her husband, updates her Facebook profile, and surfs the web.

Phones do more than divert readers from books. They make them prefer a different kind of book. Years ago, books the size of phone books were frequently best sellers, and slow movers were still page turners. Phones make us more impatient. We’re used to articles that can be read in five minutes, succinct Twitter postings (at 140 characters, they have to be!), and short news feeds. We receive information so quickly (and efficiently), that we don’t want to sit down to read a long novel. Instead, we pass right over it at the library and instead go for Snooki’s autobiography (God help us. I’ve never read it but I suspect it might even be a pop-up).

As much as I genuinely love to read, I wonder how much having a smart phone has affected me. How much reading time do I lose by playing with my phone? And how much do the shorter articles I read on Wikipedia, CNN.com, and THE WASHINGTON POST make me less willing to sit down to a monster of a novel? A few months ago I put down Stephen King’s 11/22/63 (gosh, I’m ashamed to admit that) because the length was long and the print was tiny. Instead, I read a young adult novel.

In the end, it goes like this. The people who want to read, will. I didn’t read 11/22/63 (again, there’s the cringe), but at least I read something. And  when I’m on my phone, I’m not spending time I would have normally spent reading. I spend all day reading legal jargon, and being on my phone is mindless stress release. Reading, while enjoyable, entails thought and effort.

For the people who aren’t inclined to read in the first place, I do think smart phones divert them. When reading’s a chore and the option is a bright, shiny object with tons of social medial and information, the phone will win every time. And because the information available via phone is packaged so neatly and efficiently, these would-be readers reach for magazines or surf the internet instead of investing a considerable amount of time in a book.

And the publishers weep…

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