Monday, January 10, 2011

To Nook or Not to Nook: A Question for the Age

By Alexandra Levin

I was driving with my father and his friend a few days ago, when the two college buddies began reminiscing about cruising around in their old stick shifts that rode “so much smoother” than automatics. They went on to discuss how manuals are rarely seen on the road anymore, and that young people probably do not even know what a stick shift looks like, let alone how to drive one. I barely counted to five in my head before my dad asked me the all too predictable follow-up question:
“Alex, do you know how to drive a stick shift? “
“Nooo,” I responded in an annoyed, I hate-being-the generational-litmus-test sort of tone.
The friend then joked that the manual car is much like a book, as he turned to my dad and posited, “And I am sure you like to read a book. Like a real book. Not one of those knick Nook things.”
  “Of course!” my father gleefully responded.

For my dad and his friend, paper books, like manual cars, act as badges of honor declaring both their age and their wisdom. They believe that the only “real” form of reading comes from holding a book in your hands, cover-to-cover, page-to-paper-page. These wise old men are right in this sense; eReaders serve as a sign of the ages.

Or perhaps on the other hand, they defy aging all around. The need for reading glasses signals aging. And yet, the eReaders’ feature that allows you to adjust the font size challenges these inevitable “you are getting older and your body is going to tell you so” moments. Thus it should come as no surprise that many older people buy and use eReaders. In fact, Scarborough Research released data in October 2010 that found that most eReaders are between 25-54 years old and are married with children. Just ask my mom. While she still struggles with some of the more “technological” aspects of her Kindle, such as downloading books from the Internet and sampling before she buys, it is worth it to her in order to read in size 72 and without reading glasses. In this way, eReaders are not necessarily representative of a generational gap, but rather generational options. 

Just as news has moved beyond opening a newspaper or turning a radio dial, books, and reading in general, have entered the digital domain. There are now countless methods, forums, and modes through which one can read and receive news. Yet, as the old adage goes, more is not always better.

While there is something to be said for the convenience of having so many choices, countless options can often be overwhelming and sometimes downright discouraging. Many of my peers feel that in order to be “informed,” they must read all of the major print newspapers, online news sources, and blogs. Given this nearly impossible feat, many elect to not read the news at all. A 2008 study conducted by the Northwestern University's Media Management Center confirmed this notion in finding that young adults (17-22 years old) who avoided 2008 election news felt too overwhelmed by all of the information and choices presented to them.
In this regard, us twentysomethings often feel stuck, given the multitude of options available to us but without a clear sense of which one to choose. This concept of being caught in-between is representative of a larger tension that my generation feels; we have so much to choose from, and yet we are also forced to consider the inevitable ramifications that come with these choices. We know all too well the consequences and potential dangers of our individual decisions. Because of technology and our interconnectedness, we are constantly bombarded with stories and images on our televisions, computers, iPads, and eReaders that illustrate how our actions can have long-lasting, global effects.

I recently asked a good friend how she felt about reading books and articles online and on eReaders. We quickly bonded over our common moral dilemma that we both faced every time our professors would send us readings and assignments via e-mail (which happened more often than not by the time I graduated from college this past spring). I personally hate trying to read academic articles on the computer. I need to be able to mold the papers to my lap, highlight in uniformly unstraight lines, take notes in the margin, and generally exhibit my messy, nonsensical academic ways. However, every time I click “File, Print,” I feel a twinge of guilt. Guilt for all the paper I am “wasting” when I am supposed to be saving the rainforest and preventing landfills from overflowing. I am going against the grain of what we are taught to do to protect our planet and ourselves in an environmentally conscious era. I feel especially guilty since I consider myself an environmentally aware and conscientious person. It may sound absurd, but there was a moment every time I printed out a document for school I mulled over the irony of becoming educated in hopes of one day bettering the world, and there I was, actively destroying it. But I knew, just as I had tried many times before, that if I attempted to read the article on my computer I was only going to get frustrated and end up printing it out anyways. It is a Catch-22.

These Catch-22 moments seem to come along frequently in this day and age. Where you feel damned if you do and damned if you don’t.  It’s being caught in-between; having a wealth of options at your fingertips and not being able to make a decision, so ultimately not making any decision at all. It’s having a TiVo so you can pause, record, and watch all of your favorite television shows at once. It’s being able to “sample” a book on a Kindle and never having to commit to buying or reading it.  It’s, like in my cousin’s case, having started 25 novels on an eReader and not finishing any of them. So even though early statistics indicate that people “read” more with eReaders, we are forced to question how many of these books are actually getting read from beginning to end. While the likes of “old wise men” such as Thomas Friedman (who famously summarized Generation Q as “too quiet, too online”) may consider this to be the apathy epitomized by my generation, I think it is more so our reality that is characterized by endless possibilities.  With so many possibilities, so many choices, so many opportunities, there is just not enough time to read, see, and do it all. With each creation of boundlessness, we feel that much more constricted, and thus paralyzed, by all that lies before us.

Alas, I have succumbed… and accepted. Succumbed to printing out each piece of information sent my way, and accepted that I will do my part by recycling the paper when I am finished. And in this way, I am doing exactly what I need to be doing:  figuring out how to take all that I have been given, all the choices that I am presented with, and making decisions based on what works for the world and for me.

As I rode with my father and his friend in the manual car that my age supposedly impeded my ability to drive, I declared,
            “Me either! I don’t have a Nook!,” like a child trying to keep-up
            with the pack on the playground.
The pack, however, is often running in two different directions, leaving me in the middle unsure of which way to go. Yet, in this case my mind is made-up. Not owning an eReader is both a badge of my age and my own, personal wisdom.

Alexandra Levin graduated this past spring from George Washington University with a degree in International Affairs and Anthropology, and is currently interning with Kyle Semmel (Publications and Communications Manager) at The Writer’s Center. She originally hails from Denver, Colorado.

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