Plato on Pop

Philosophy and pop culture

E-books and Forgetting What to Read

E-readers are inconveniently convenient.

With the rise of e-readers, publishers have bemoaned the loss of free advertising that they used to get from people looking at the covers of one another's books in cafes, on the beach, in airports, and wherever else people read in public. And, of course, snooty readers find it frustrating not to be able to see the covers of other people's books and cast judgment on them. There is a veneer of sophistication that comes with using an e-reader, but the dirty little secret of many users is that they're actually reading romance novels or other genre fiction. The books they may have once hesitated to bring out in public are now safe to read in the open. Good for them, I say.

Still, I'm not about to join them. I may be the last person in the world without a Kindle, iPad, or other e-reader. Mostly that's because I'm a technophobe, maybe even a Luddite. But it's also because I don't want to forget what to read. I have books all over the place, and I read different books for different purposes. In my office next to my desk is a small end table displaying six philosophy books that I've bought in recent months. Unread, the books haunt and mock me, and because of this eventually I will read them. If they were on an e-reader, though, I think I'd forget them. I know I've forgotten to listen to music downloaded to my iPod.

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Plus, I like to compartmentalize my reading. I read philosophy in my office, light nonfiction in my downstairs bathroom, politics in my upstairs bathroom, and novels in my bedroom. In my car I listen to an audio book, usually another novel. I like to keep church and state, or at least bathroom and bedroom, separate. The idea of having all those books for all those different purposes on the same device seems inconveniently convenient. When I'm in the bathroom I don't want to have access to philosophy and literature. I have other things to worry about, like politics.

I think I could get past my technophobia and maybe even learn to love the glowing digital text. I like to hold paper and cloth in my hands, but I could learn to live without it. In fact, everyone tells me they read more with their e-reader, and I don't doubt it. But what are they reading? And, more importantly, what have they forgotten to read?

Copyright William Irwin 2011

William Irwin, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at King’s College in Pennsylvania.

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