Are E-Books Killing Reading For Fun?

Americans are reading differently than they used to: more e-books, more audio books and young people choosing not to read at all. Guest host Celeste Headlee looks at this country's changing reading habits with Pew Research Center's Kathryn Zickuhr and librarian Elissa Malespina.

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CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, hockey is gaining popularity among minorities. We'll talk with journalist and blogger William Douglas about what to watch for and whether the Sochi Olympics could bring America another miracle on ice, and why we're seeing more blacks on the ice as well. First, though, Americans are reading differently than they used to - more e-books, more audiobooks and more young people choosing not to read. Joining me now to talk about America's reading habits are Kathryn Zickuhr. She's a research associate at the Pew Research Center's Internet Project. And Elissa Malespina, school librarian at South Orange Middle School in New Jersey. Welcome to both of you.

KATHRYN ZICKUHR: Thanks for having me.

ELISSA MALESPINA: Thank you for having me.

HEADLEE: I found that one of the more surprising things in the Pew report was the fact that, perhaps, the death of print were greatly exaggerated, right? I mean, people, Kathryn, are still reading books largely on traditional format, right?

ZICKUHR: Yes, and this is something that we've seen throughout our research that print is still really the foundation of Americans' reading habits. They are reading more e-books.

HEADLEE: Right.

ZICKUHR: About 3 in 10 adults read an e-book last year. But really when it comes down to it, most people read in print as well. Very few people read - just about 4 to 5 percent of readers read only e-books and not print.

HEADLEE: OK. So the Pew study caught up with people beginning at age 18. Elissa, what are you seeing in kids? What do they want to read? Do they want to go and take a Kindle or an e-book? Or how are they choosing to read?

MALESPINA: You know what? I'm seeing them read on all different devices. It's my job as a school librarian to make sure that I have all these devices for my students because some like audiobooks, some like e-books and some do like print. But really, what we found, is - I have found as a librarian is that print is not dead by any means. Really, my Nooks don't get checked out nearly as much as my books do. And really when they're reading - when they want a fiction book, they want to read the print book.

HEADLEE: Well, let's talk a little bit about e-books and audiobooks, though, because another interesting point, Kathryn, from the Pew study is that among blacks, you saw a lot of interest in audiobooks and e-books as well. Do we have any idea why?

ZICKUHR: That is such a fascinating question because this is a case where there are no differences between whites and blacks for e-book reading and audiobook listening, which is really interesting because in the past we have - we often see differences.

HEADLEE: There's been a big gap, yeah.

ZICKUHR: And this is also really interesting because whites are more likely to own e-readers or tablets or e-readers, especially - those devices that are really made just for reading e-books.

HEADLEE: A Kindle or a Nook.

ZICKUHR: Yeah. So the experiences of African-Americans reading e-books might also be a little different because they might be more likely to read them on desktops or laptops or even on cell phones rather than just on these devices.

HEADLEE: Now, Elissa, one of the supposed benefits or predicted benefits of, say, an e-reader was that it would attract younger readers, right? That they like gadgets. They like electronics. And they might be more likely to read if they had a digital device. What have you seen in that particular corner?

MALESPINA: I think that if you give them just an e-reader, they love it because then they can read their books. They have numerous books on them. They have the ability to, you know, really go at it. But a lot of times these devices are not just an e-reader. They're also a tablet. So they get distracted by the apps and all of the other things that go along with it. And reading sometimes takes a backseat. I know in my library, I specifically bought devices that were just for books because I didn't want them to have that distraction.

HEADLEE: Well, let's talk about distracted teens because there's a new Nielsen book report, Elissa, that shows that between 2011 and 2013, the number of U.S. teenagers who say they don't read for fun has gone up to 41 percent, which scares me, Elissa. I mean, are teenagers less interested in reading? Perhaps, they are too distracted by their smartphone and, as you say, like an iPad or another tablet?

MALESPINA: You know what? It didn't shock me, the statistics, sadly. I wish I could say that it did. But with students having more access and kids having more access to computers, tablets, phones and all of that, they're not spending as much time, say, reading for pleasure. But the thing is, how do you define reading? And that was a good point that somebody brought up on Twitter today. If we're defining reading as, you know, reading a blog post, reading a fan forum, you know, reading the Minecraft forum, then, you know what, our kids are doing that. But if we're defining reading as just, maybe, books, then maybe it's not. So it's one of those statistics that I think is rather interesting 'cause kids are really getting pulled in a lot of different directions with extracurricular activities, lots of homework. So sometimes, sadly, reading takes a backseat.

HEADLEE: So, Kathryn, what do you take away from this study? How have Americans' reading habits changed?

ZICKUHR: Well, I think one of the first things to keep in mind just when we're talking about e-books, for instance, is just - people who read e-books are really big readers.

HEADLEE: OK.

ZICKUHR: They aren't different in many ways than other readers. They tend to skew a little younger, probably because the technological component, but they love to read. And they also really still value books as physical objects surprisingly enough.

HEADLEE: An actual book, not a blog post, as Elissa was describing.

ZICKUHR: Right. I mean, that reading is much harder to capture. I mean, if I were to ask you in a survey about what you've read yesterday, I mean, you could read so many things.

HEADLEE: I could tell you. I just finished a novel called "Night Film." But, yeah, I am an avid book reader. Yeah.

ZICKUHR: But you probably also read, you know - you might've read Twitter...

HEADLEE: Newspaper articles, right.

ZICKUHR: ...Facebook, newspaper articles, the side of a cereal box. Like, that's much harder. So we're really focusing on this - what we can quantify with books. And that's been really interest. And I know a lot of people are very interested in this younger generation, especially because for a lot of people reading today for the adults in our surveys...

HEADLEE: Yeah.

ZICKUHR: ...They grew up reading print books. And they have, often, very warm memories around print books and reading.

HEADLEE: Yeah.

ZICKUHR: So that's still a big part of their habits.

HEADLEE: The smell of a library book, you can't replace it.

ZICKUHR: Exactly.

HEADLEE: Kathryn Zickuhr is research associate at the Pew Research Center's Internet Project. And Elissa Maelspina is school librarian at South Orange Middle School in New Jersey. Thanks to both of you.

MALESPINA: Thank you so much for having us.

ZICKUHR: Thank you.

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