The Social Downside of eBooks and eReaders

The e-book revolution is affecting bookshelves. According to The Economist:

Next month IKEA will introduce a new, deeper version of its ubiquitous “BILLY” bookcase. The flat-pack furniture giant is already promoting glass doors for its bookshelves. The firm reckons customers will increasingly use them for ornaments, tchotchkes and the odd coffee-table tome—anything, that is, except books that are actually read.

A lot of pundits are wringing their hands over this declaring that end of the print book and the demise of reading. I think they’re wrong on both counts. Books aren’t going to die and people aren’t going to stop reading just because of the switch to e-books and e-readers. IKEA sees that books are moving to the digital realm and is trying to make its bookshelves useful for something other than books. (Don’t tell anyone but you can still put books in them if you want.) Offering a new version of their bookshelves is good business move. However, the article reminded me that as much as I love e-books and e-readers there is a social downside to the digitization of books.

I love talking to people about the books they’re reading. Not only is it a great chance to share something you have in common with someone, but it’s a great way to learn why readers like certain books. For a writer, learning what pushes someone’s emotional buttons and keeps them reading is as valuable as gold.

My friends who are readers or writers always have bookshelves overflowing with book. I like scanning the books and talking to them about the new books they’ve been reading. I’ve also had lots of conversations in airports, parks, or other places just by seeing someone reading a book by an author I like or wanted to know more about. I’ve had people come up to me and do the same thing. For the most part, I’ve really enjoyed those conversations.

But as eReaders have grown in popularity, I’ve noticed the opportunity for book related conversations has decreased dramatically. The bookshelves of my friends, though still overflowing, haven’t changed since they started reading books on their Kindle or Nook. Books still come up from time to time but usually it’s only if they’re really excited about the book their reading. For the most part I don’t know what they’re reading unless they keep their Goodreads account updated.

When I travel, I see a lot more eReadres than I do paper books. Talking to someone about the novelty of their Kindle or Nook was cool a year or two ago but now they’ve become more widely available those conversations just don’t work anymore. Besides, I have a hard time asking people what’s on their Kindle. I’d rather see what they’re reading and, if it’s something I’m interested in, start up a conversation around that. With an eReader its impossible to tell if they’re reading a book, author, or genre I want to have a conversation about.

What would be cool is if eReaders had a feature you could turn on that would let other eReaders within 500 feet know what books you have in common. Maybe something like that exists and I haven’t heard about it. Until then, I’ll have to get more creative on how to start  book conversations.