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Boomers and E-Reading

Photograph by André Kertesz, from an essay by Sven Birkets on reading

I bought my first e-reader some years ago in a curious but skeptical frame of mind. But gradually over the years I have read fewer and fewer codexes, more and more electronic versions. I might have gone wholly digital by this point except for two things. First, many of the books I read I read in order to teach, and I have never gotten comfortable with navigating through an electronic text in class. It’s slow and awkward for me. And second, I started buying electronic books from Amazon and so am locked into their e-reading ecosystem, and I don’t like that. (Yes, I know how to extract the books from their DRM prison, but that’s a tedious and time-consuming process.) So I remain a regular purchaser of codexes.

But you know, like many people my age, I don’t see quite as well as I used to: even with trifocals, finding the right distance for text can be challenging. And light-sensitivity decreases with age, so I find myself looking for brighter lamps under which to read. Reading on an iPad or a Kindle Paperlight solves both of these problems: I can get text the size I want and plenty of light in every environment.

And I suspect that as I age the conveniences of e-readers will only become more appealing. When my back hurts I might want to lie on my side for an extended period, and we all know how awkward that can be with a codex. Or maybe my eyes will get tired more often, at which point I can put on my headphones and let the machine read the book to me for a while. I might become more forgetful, leaving the books I need behind more often, in which case having just one object to remember will make life easier.

So perhaps it won’t be young people but rather older ones who bring about the decline of the codex. Almost everyone I know who plays vinyl records on a turntable is thirty years younger than I am; maybe something similar will happen with books. Twenty years down the line, the retirement homes will be lit by the glow of screens, while the young hipsters in their coffeeshops will be savoring the tactile and olfactory pleasures of well-printed cloth-bound books.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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