I don’t read books

After 28 years of reading a book a week, I’ve only read a handful in the last two years—none in print format. I’m reading more than ever, just not the hardbound books that line my library. It’s a case study of one but part of a trend.

I bought a Kindle two years ago but don’t use it as much as anticipated. It great when you travel to China and the laptop battery runs out. I love the free summaries you can download from Amazon—that’s about as much as my shortened attention span can handle. But Kindle isn’t the culprit.

About one third of the change in my reading pattern is web-based: blogs, RSS feeds, PDFs, and websites. I track news and blogs on iGoogle and this has largely replaced reading newspapers in the morning. Facebook and Twitter have creped onto my calendar each requiring a couple daily updates on random thoughts and whereabouts. I’m clearly spending more time reading about what other people are reading, thinking, eating, and doing. Some of this is interesting, but even filtered some of it is a productivity loss.

I’m writing more than ever, a blog a day and an occasional paper. I used to think in 1500 word op-eds, and now I think in 300 word blogs and 140 character Tweets.

The big culprit is email. The five accounts on my MacBook deliver at least 200 emails a day. The gmail account overflows with Google Alerts. An old AOL account delivers travel information. Several business accounts provide a steady stream of to-dos. I don’t know about you, but I have a real aversion to unread email. I feel compelled to clear all accounts every time I open my laptop and that ends up occupying at least a couple hours. The good news is that I can play a remote leadership role in several organizations simultaneously. The bad news is that I’m reading fewer books.

I’m not alone. I know a lot of people that are doing more reading electronically. Book Industry Trends are flat or declining with some growth in electronic books and, somewhat surprisingly, juvenile books (thank goodness for JK Rowling).

Curmudgeons like Mark Bauerlein, Dumbest Generation, are wrong (at least based on a quick review of a free summary). Kids are smart in new ways. I’m sure he wouldn’t like the schools I’m developing with online curriculum, a social network, and learning games. He would like to arrest technology development and require everyone to curl up with a good book, but there’s no going back.

It is fair to say that we don’t fully understand the impacts of replacing the long form with the short electronic bursts. We’ll need to watch this and think about its implications for learning, organizational communications, civic participation, and especially families. Back to email.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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