And Another Thing

Thrill of a good book doesn't change with format
By: Susan Rushton
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Mea culpa: Two weeks ago, I wrote about the money the government's stupidly going to send us, rather than paying down the national debt. I suggested that we donate at least some of it to local charitable organizations. My multiplication was off in that column. I imagined 40,000 Auburnites donating $100 each, and came up with $400,000¦ a tidy sum, to be sure, but wrong. If 40,000 of us donate $100 each, four MILLION bucks will go into pockets that need it, and take longer to get to China. Now: For those of you deep into your books, you probably didn't hear what Apple's Steve Jobs said recently about your activity. Nobody's doing it anymore, he said. The fact is that people don't read, he said. Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. First of all, his doom-saying statistic reminds me of Yogi Berra's comment about Coney Island: Nobody goes there anymore because it's too crowded. Surely if 40 percent didn't read, then 60 percent did. Yes, you and I wish more people read more. Jobs probably doesn't because the time spend reading books or wandering in bookstores is time spent away from downloading iTunes onto your iPod, or surfing the Net on your Mac. But 60 percent of anything is a crowd. Jobs would be ecstatic if Apple had 60 percent of the computer business. The context of the conversation was Amazon's fancy Kindle, the currently-unavailable-because-they-didn't-anticipate-the-heavy-demand wireless, hand-held reading device that holds over 200 titles. I saw one about a week ago, and it's dismayingly easy to use and easy to read. With understandable pride, I submit that I anticipated this product in this space years ago: [Anything you want to read will] all get transferred onto a hand-held screen, I wrote in 1991. Any word you want accessible by button¦ access any information you might want by button and screen in your hand [with] Readmans, pocket fax machines and Handipedias. I didn't get the names correct, but I could see what was coming. And here it is. On-screen books. But Jobs sniffed at the concept. It doesn't matter how good or bad the product is, he said. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don't read anymore. Right. Just because the product is backordered because so many people want it, that doesn't mean they want to read. And because success breeds success, other companies are going to create their own hand-held reading devices, giving reading a hip, technologically savvy cachet that I hope will appeal to the younger crowd ” included, I expect, in Job's 40 percent who didn't read a book last year. Real book, virtual book: the process of reading is the same, whether you have paper in your hands or a screen. A good book is a good book, good writing is good writing, good information is good information. No matter how you ingest it. The wonderful 1950 movie Born Yesterday shows what happens when you open the door to information. Hired to smarten up Judy Holliday, William Holden merely pushes her in the right direction, and all of a sudden she's asking questions, seeing things she never saw before, and learning that everything's an introduction to something else. Education is a difficult thing to control or to channel, Holden says ” smugly, I admit. One thing leads to another. It's a matter of awakening curiosity, stimulating imagination, developing a sense of independence. And with an agenda like mine of course I'd say this: there's no such thing as too much of this sort of activity. Never too much information or too much good writing. Enough good books? No such thing. Make access to reading easy? Why not? Encourage someone to step into the world of the well-written word, the well-written story, and suddenly the world expands. For a person who loves to read, ready availability of books ” online or in a bricks-and-mortar store ” is a necessary ingredient to life. I want everybody to be smart, Holden says to Holliday. As smart as they can be. A world full of ignorant people is too dangerous to live in.