I have what sometimes seems an interminable commute to work. The upside, is, of course, the amount of work I can accomplish, and the opportunity to observe the reading habits of those around me. In the course of my investigations, I have made the following unscientific observations: 1) shortly before the holidays, a well-coiffed lady carrying an expensive shoulder bag could usually be counted on to pull from it a hardcover copy of The Help; 2) People react suspiciously when you make too obvious an effort to see what they are reading; and 3) the presence of wi-fi is inimical to books.
I saw this first when I was in Boston; unlike the trains upon which I rely, Boston’s regional rail line is wired, and as a result, I saw precisely no one reading. No books, no newspapers, nothing. All those not thumbing blackberries and tapping iPhones were typing furiously on their laptops. True, these were commuting hours, but if the (still) employed aren’t buying books, we’re all in trouble. I concede, as Lauren pointed out, that it’s possible that some of the iPhoners were in fact reading, but peering at someone’s handheld device represents a level of nosiness that is perhaps pathological and certainly dangerous . In Philadelphia’s Thirtieth Street Station, where Wi-fi emanates from a handful of restaurants, people cluster together, cozy and anonymous, jostling to be within range of the signal, attending to the urgent business that the internet both facilitates and creates. And I’m as bad as anyone; while traveling I have been known to hold my computer aloft, Geiger-counter style, hoping to pick up some frisson of connectivity. Still, once I started paying attention, it has become increasingly clear (and forgive me for stating the obvious) that leisure time is finite, and as far as my commute is concerned, the pc trumps the paperback. I fly the friendly skies less frequently these days, but it seems to me that the wholesale installation of wi-fi on airplanes would eviscerate the airport read. A publishing colleague told me that the only folks pleased by the prospective ban on all electronic devices on airplanes were booksellers.
The trend I have noted anecdotally among adults has been better and more thoroughly investigated in young people. On January 20, the Kaiser Foundation released its study about media use among children and teens.
I’m not surprised that media use is up dramatically in the last five years—five years in which Facebook, YouTube, texting, etc. were more or less invented. It’s to the good then, that publishing and tech companies are scrambling to figure out how to carve a space for reading in the crowded virtual world. And it’s great that the Kindle or the iPad and the unnamed devices still to come can summon books from the air. (I find this very, very cool.) But even so, the decision to read a book, and not, say, tweet, or check in on all 462 of your closest friends, or even finish up that spreadsheet for the meeting on Friday, is a choice. One that we cannot lose the habit of making.