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Today I got to be a (tweeting) fly on the wall in Jonathan Aitken’s ebook design class. Somewhat to my amusement, Jonathan began by explaining how old people like us used to read in linear way, where you flip through pages in order. The explanation seemed less amusingly superfluous once a quick show of hands revealed that the vast majority of students had read fewer than 10 books in the past year. (OK, I’m not doing that much better myself, but I have kids — useful not only for their steady supply of amusing Facebook anecdotes, but as an iron-clad excuse for not reading more.)

Once we got into discussion mode, what was really interesting was how reverently these not-very-book-consuming young people talk about the role and value of books. Some representative comments:

  • There’s still value in actually completing something, and focusing, and we’re losing that.
  • It feels disrespectful to just read part of an article. It’s like me tuning out half your lecture.
  • A book is meant as an escape.
  • There are a lot of studies that show that hyperlinks break your concentration — a hyperlink is an implied decision we can’t stop thinking about.

And on socially enhanced ebooks in particular:

  • I would rather read for myself before getting othe people’s comments.
  • It makes it less intimate, and more social.
  • I want to read a book by myself. The thing about social networks is you get so distracted by tweets by stuff — if you are tweeting back you can’t really focus.

On the other hand, some students noted the value of a less linear or immersive approach to reading:

  • If you are reading a book for entertaining yourself you want to submerge yourself, but if you are reading a book for another purpose sometimes you just want to get to the point.
  • It can be useful to read in fragments; sometimes you just need to read a specific thing.

After spending so much of the past year reading books and articles that fret over how computers, the Internet and social networking are slowly chewing up and digesting the brains of our young, it was interesting to hear so many iPhone-toting students making a passionate case for the value of immersive reading. Then again, i’m not sure that Emily Carr students are all that representative of Kids These Days: do the kids in your office draw this nicely on the walls?