E-Reading: More or Less?

I workout each day at the gym. More and more often now I see people who bring their Kindle with them and read with the thing while they are exercising. Some are simultaneously reading their e-book, listening to tunes on their iPod, and from time to time glancing up to watch the Food Channel on one of the overhead TVs. All of this makes life bearable, I suppose.

The other day, the person on the machine next to me was tinkering with their iPad. First it was YouTube, then the Times, then Pandora (ear phones in her ears) until I lost interest and picked up the pace a bit.

But not everyone has succumbed to the lure of these devices; there are still a few who I see reading a printed book as I snoop to find its title. Today I stopped to take a good look at one such reader only to discover it was The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I should have known.

As for me, after listening to NPR for a while on my iPhone, I generally switch to the local rock station App and belt out a few tunes while I’m getting my heart beat up on the treadmill. Watching the TV depresses me unless they are showing a Red Sox game or Roger Federer playing tennis.

The Wall Street Journal recently published an article on how these new devices are changing reading habits. Confirming other reports I’ve heard, the article claims recent surveys indicate that people are reading more. At least that’s what the readers say they are doing

In one study 40% of digital readers reported they now read more than they did with printed books and in another study 55% of recent purchasers of Sony’s e-reader claimed they would be reading more books in the future.

The Journal article claims these findings contrast with the recent National Endowment of the Arts study reporting sharp declines in reading frequency especially among the young. However, this was a much larger, random sample investigation of individuals throughout the country. But like the more recent studies of e-book readers all of evidence in based on the self-reports of individual readers.

Are these findings believable? Can we be confident in what people report when they are interviewed by another person or fill out a questionnaire? There is good reason to believe that those who respond to these surveys overestimate the frequency of positive or highly valued behaviors such as, yes, reading.

Since the subjects are fully aware that reading is important, they are hesitant to say they aren’t doing much of it anymore. They are also aware they are in a study and pretty much know its hypothesis, so they are reluctant to say anything that might contradict it.

In turn, the experimenter may subtly frame the questions in such a way as to confirm the hypothesis or if the survey is taken in the presence of the subject, lead them to respond in a certain way. These influences are known as experimenter errors and biases, factors that must always be ruled out of any study in which they are plausible alternative accounts of the findings.

So are readers reading more on their new devices? In my mind it is still an open question. I also don’t know if they are reading as carefully, or as deeply, if you will, as they might have been doing before they began reading e-books. On the other hand, I think it is clear that e-readers are purchasing more books and, of course, downloading a great many free ones. But my hunch is they are by no means reading each and every one of them, at least from start to finish.