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BY ERIC MARKOWSKY

A while back I borrowed Nico’s BeBook to give this whole ereader thing a try for myself.  I’ll leave it to others to tout the merits of this or that ereader (and you can find a comparison of the BeBook to the Sony PRS-505 here).  What I found most interesting about the whole experiment was the public reaction, the public’s reaction to me personally, to me reading on an ereader right in front of their very eyes.  I might as well have been a chimera, something mythical they’d only read about but never seen in the wild.  I couldn’t believe how many people wanted to ask me about the little book-like device in my hands, but I was glad to see that so many people seemed interested.

I do a lot of reading in public places, bus stops, subways, waiting rooms, parks, coffee shops, etc.  Usually, I don’t attract much attention.  Sometimes, when I’m at work, someone will catch me reading while I’m covering the reception desk.  They’ll ask me what I’m reading, and if it’s a book they’ve read or an author they’ve heard of, they might stop and chat about it for a bit.  This happens outside of work, too, but much more rarely.  And this was the first thing I noticed about reading on an ereader: you get noticed a lot more.

On my first day in the office with the BeBook, one of the IT guys stopped at my desk and asked, “Is that a Kindle?”  This was easily the single most common question I heard wherever I happened to be reading.  I explained that it was not a Kindle, but a different kind of ereader, that there were actually quite a variety of non-Kindle ereaders in production.  This was a revelation to many.

Next the conversation invariably led to the screen.  People were universally impressed.  “That looks pretty good,” they’d say, always sounding surprised, sometimes adding,  “That’s very readable,” as if they’d expected the screen to be an indecipherable mess of streaming code straight out of The Matrix.

From there the conversation followed one of two paths.  Tech-minded people wanted to get into the features, how it interfaced with my computer, how many books it could hold, etc.  Others would get into the comparison with paper books, admitting in an unexpectedly apologetic way that they could see this had many advantages but they just preferred reading the old-fashioned way.

Here’s one place the conversation never lead: no one asked me, not once, what I was reading.  Even when they took the BeBook in their own hands and flipped pages back and forth, watching the words vanish and reassemble, they never asked what book they were looking at. There was a certain reverence for the device itself that deflected the normal conversations that books usually lead to: “Oh, I’ve read that.  Have you read…?”  No one talked about books.  Instead they talked about technology or nostalgia.

And that was the main difference in the exchanges I had over my book that week: the conversation was all about the device.  Some might argue that shifting interest from the content to the medium is a move in the wrong direction, but I disagree.  It’s a temporary shift in the first place; once ereaders are more commonplace people will likely shift their focus back to content.  In the meantime, the transition is spurring an interesting and productive public debate.  New focus on the medium of transmission is forcing people to consider what reading means to them.

Literacy is such a fundamental skill in our conception of education that the act of reading mainly goes unnoticed.  We engage in it unconsciously, without asking what we’re up to, what we hope to get out of it.  We mostly leave these questions to professional scholars and other shut-ins if we consider them at all.  But for a week, an assortment of co-workers and strangers talked to me about reading, how to do it well and what sort of connection they hoped to make with the words.  Love it or hate it, the revolution in digital publishing is pushing these sorts of questions into the public domain.  This kind of public inquiry can only be good for the future of reading, whatever shape it might take in the years to come.

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