Is the future of reading in the dystopian world of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 in which books are banned? Or is it in the foreseeable event where our reading habit gets ‘condensed’ into short reads only? What we surely know is that the answer will not lie in the comfort of “both of the above options”.
Evolution of reading (for leisure)
Before we further probe the future of reading, let’s understand reading itself. When did reading begin? The oldest inscriptions in Latin and Greek were written in Scriptio continua – a script that had no punctuation or divider between words. The purpose of Scriptio continua was not to help people read but to record what was essentially history and mythology passed across generations by narration. Somewhere in 600-800 AD, the concept of using space as a divider between words came about. And it revolutionized reading – people began to read silently. Yes, what we see as a natural way of reading today came about because of the introduction of space between words.
The first English novel “Pamela” by Samuel Richardson was published in 1740. It took another hundred years before yellowbacks or paperbacks made their appearance. Paperbacks introduced people to a new genre of reading -affordable leisure reading. By the end of the 19th century, there was a flood of paperbacks in the market. All of a sudden, there was too much content to read in early 20th century. Just as it is so in the 21st century.
So much to read and so little time circa 18th century
To cope with the problem of “so much to read and so little time”, condensed formats made their appearance in the form of book reviews with Ralph Griffith’s The Monthly Review in 1749. Followed by The Quarterly Review in 1809. This need for condensed information then led to the advent of the modern encyclopedia in early 20th century. In 1922, an icon was born to help people read ‘curated and condensed articles’ – DeWitt Wallace introduced Reader’s Digest to the world. With its core proposition of helping people read more in lesser time using condensed articles, Reader’s Digest became the world’s highest selling paid subscription magazine. And has stayed in that position for almost a century now.
Wallace then followed up with Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, a quarterly publication that condensed few of the popular books of the day. In a sense, tl;dr (the youngsters’ lingo of “too long; didn’t read”) began as early as the 1920s!
Tl;dr in the 21st century
Close to 100 years later, today, in 2016, we are still in the tl;dr world. Do not have the time to read the newspaper? There’s inshorts app for you in India and theSkimm daily newsletter in America. Do not have the patience to watch a 2.5 hours movie? There are short movies like Ouch and Ahalya on YouTube. Do not have the time to read books in their entirety, you have apps that convert non-fiction books into snackable bites or short summaries. So when folks wring their hand and despair that the youngsters today are not reading as much as their previous generations, you can sit back and relax. Too many books to read and too little time as a problem statement goes back to early 20th century – it’s at least a 100 years old problem.
And what about these apps that summarize books so that you do not need to read them? Well, Reader’s Digest saw it as an opportunity in 1922. The world surely is a better place with Reader’s Digest.
The future of reading is constant
People will continue to read. And that, clearly, is good news. What will keep changing is the content (long format/short format/tl;dr format) and the container (paper/screen/audio). What is equally likely to happen is people (including people who do not enjoy reading) will use tl;dr content and screens to ‘sample’ content. If they like what they see in their few minutes of skimming, they will possibly dive deep into the content. Whether authors and publishing industry like it or not, sampling will be the gateway to reading books or long format content in the future – just like it was 100 years ago.
Guest Post Author
Gaurav Gupta is the founder and chief editor of bookbhook, an app-based service that summarizes thoughtfully curated books into handcrafted short book summaries. While Gaurav is no DeWitt Wallace, he is glad that bookbhook’s service promise of “You do not need to read more to know more” is as true today as it was in the 1920s. This thought for this blog post came about when Gaurav was summarizing Naomi Baron’s Words Onscreen-The fate of reading in a digital world for bookbhook.
Thank you, Gaurav, for sharing your thoughts about ‘The Future of Reading’