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Amazon, the iPad, and the culture of reading in an age of distraction

“It’s like trying to cook when there are little children around.” That’s the assessment of one David Myers, a 53-year-old system administrator in Atlanta, regarding the experience of reading a book on the Kindle Fire. Myers is quoted in a New York Times article about the qualitative aspects of reading on multimedia, Internet-enabled devices. The article finds, unsurprisingly, that devices such as the iPad or the Kindle Fire, which are capable of surfing the Internet or streaming video, promote heightened distractibility among readers.

People who read ebooks on tablets like the iPad are realizing that while a book in print or on a black-and-white Kindle is straightforward and immersive, a tablet offers a menu of distractions that can fragment the reading experience, or stop it in its tracks.

Email lurks tantalizingly within reach. Looking up a tricky word or unknown fact in the book is easily accomplished through a quick Google search. And if a book starts to drag, giving up on it to stream a movie over Netflix or scroll through your Twitter feed is only a few taps away.

The argument is not a new one, having been well rehearsed in volumes such as Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows and William Powers’s Hamlet’s Blackberry. Nor is it likely to gain much traction with technophiles who envision a not-so-distant future in which even dedicated e-readers will feature enhanced books that link to external multimedia content.

And there is something to be said for the devices’ insistence that a book hold a reader’s attention. As Erin Faulk says in the NYT piece: “Recently, I gravitate to books that make me forget I have a world of entertainment at my fingertips. If the book’s not good enough to do that, I guess my time is better spent.”

Still, what Cory Doctorow referred to as an “ecosystem of interruption technologies” embedded in devices such as the iPad may be partly to blame for the reason Carr is able to quote Clay Shirky as writing, “No one reads War and Peace.… It’s too long and not so interesting.” Or maybe the lure of YouTube is just too great.

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