Yesterday I provided a kind of soft intro to the topic I want to look at today which bears on larger issues than just why bookstores are struggling.
There are some widely circulating statistics suggesting that in North America, western Europe and perhaps Australia/New Zealand as well, for the first time ever we’re seeing a generation with a lower life expectancy than their parents and grandparents faced; in other words, after better nutrition and medical knowledge have allowed us to live longer for years, suddenly it appears the numbers have peaked for both males and females.
On top of that, we’re also seeing a major decline in economic expectancy. Millennials are struggling to find jobs and the prospect of amassing enough wealth to secure their retirement years has somewhat vanished.
I would argue that parallel to all this we’re also seeing a major decline in literacy, or at least literacy as we have previously understood it or measured it.
There are a number of reasons for this, but all related to the personal computer revolution of the past 20 years. This isn’t a technical revolution, because the technology has been around much longer, and it’s not really a computer revolution for the same reason. Rather it’s the effect of personal computers being a part of every home, or even every individual. In the Fall of 2009, Finland became the first country to declare broadband internet access a legal right and by the summer of 2010, every person was to have access to a 1Mb connection.
I’ve written elsewhere about how computers and the internet have accelerated social change and how we’ve basically lived 4 decades worth of shifting paradigms in just 20 years. Today however we want to focus simply on language.
The simple answer to the question, “Why aren’t people reading books like they once did?” is easy.
- We don’t have the time. We’re spending all our free time with our devices, or more specifically, screens.
- The small screen in our pocket associated with our mobile phone
- The medium screen be it a desktop, laptop or tablet
- The giant screen in the living room be it Plasma, LED or LCD
- We don’t have the money. We’re using up all our discretionary spending money on the same screens.
- monthly phone bill and data plan overages
- cable or satellite television
- home internet connection
- streaming services
- software bundles
- accessories, extended warranties, virus protection, etc.
That is all fairly obvious.
We’re also seeing some other things at play at the same time.
- Spell-check – You don’t really need to know how to spell a word anymore since the computer corrects it for you. Grammar-check is also slowly improving.
- Texting – This is the reduction of the English language in the extreme.
- Emojis – This is the reduction of written communication in the extreme.
- Acronyms and Initialisms – I hope you’re taking this article seriously and not ROFL or LOL.
But there are also other factors beyond what’s happening online:
- The end of cursive writing – They don’t teach cursive script in many (if not most) schools now. I would argue there’s something different about what we write when confined to individually printed letters. But this is a moot point when you think about…
- The end of handwriting, period – If you’re of a certain age and are right-handed, and you look toward the end of your middle finger, there’s probably a callus there from many years of penmanship. Today, most kids spend far more hours keyboarding than handwriting.
- The increasing emphasis on numeracy over literacy – Your ability to process numeric data is increasingly more vital than your way with words.
- The diminished need to learn – It’s no longer necessary to know anything as long as you have mastered search and can locate the information needed. Unfortunately however there is a less sense as to the expected answer one is looking for, or a healthy skepticism as to whether or not the source is trustworthy or accurate.
The technology has also inflicted more damage to traditional reading:
- Shortened attention spans – I don’t understand the psychological ramifications and I’m sure much ink has been given to this in professional journals and forums, but simply put, there’s something about the technology that has made us restless resulting in the often-seen response, “TLDR” (too long, didn’t read).
- Increased distractions – One person well when they said something along these lines, ‘The problem with the internet is there are too many off-ramps.’
- Dependency on rich text – I am referring here to our inability to follow a sustained argument through a lengthy paragraph. Rather we have become dependent on the use of italics, bold face, subheadings, bullet points, pull-quotes, and even (horrors!) underlining, color and enlarged fonts. (Yes, guilty as charged here.)
Next, there is the particular challenge of eBooks:
- When they were first introduced, eBooks were offered at a substantial discount. The problem with this is that when you only spend 99-cents, or get the book for free, you don’t really have any investment in it. Many people would read a chapter or two, figure they got their money’s worth and never finish reading. This concerns me on several levels:
- It strikes me as cheapening reading, diminishing the value of the author’s worth.
- For some, it was all about the downloading experience; loading the device with titles for which the person had no intention of reading
- It grossly inflated eBook sales which signaled a death of print which never happened.
- The side effects of sore eyes and headaches caused by the devices turned some people away from reading.
- It made it more difficult, if not impossible to loan a book to a friend.
- When someone really loves a book, they will tell five friends, of which only one (at most) will be another eBook reader; the other four will try to get the book in print. But to love the book they have value it and finish reading it.
- The side effect of cheap eBooks and the introduction of the Amazon discounting paradigm created a perfect storm, wherein print books were more widely discounted, which cheapened the value of printed books and also resulted in a climate where people were not finishing reading what they had started.
Finally, as noted above the technology afforded the possibility of online sales which bypass the traditional brick-and-mortar store.
- The Amazon paradigm — the company itself and various copycats — created a situation whereby books were shipped directly to a customer’s door, thereby creating a situation where people were less likely to interact with physical books in a retail store environment. Choices are made from a store which really has no filters and where obscure publishers can buy placement in ways unknown before the Amazon revolution.
- Sometimes customers got burned. The book didn’t materialize as what was suggested in online.
- Other customers took to using the traditional bookstore as a showroom for the online seller. They would check it out in a local store, but purchase it cheaper from the online vendor. This was (and still is) a source of great frustration for bookstore owners, many of whom didn’t need another reason to throw in the towel.
…Well, that about covers it, right? Not quite. Tomorrow, we’ll look at the particular issues which face bookstores more familiar to some readers here, Christian bookstores; the topic we originally set out to answer.
Feel free to engage the comments section to suggest things I may have missed. These notes are from many years of doing this extemporaneously and I may have omitted some things. If the omission is serious, I may update the text.