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The e-book, the e-reader, and the future of reading

As stone tablets gave way the codex, the future of reading is digital – but will the e-reader and the e-book change the nature of how we read?

By Matthew ShaerStaff Writer / December 21, 2009

Members of a suburban Boston book group.

Mary Knox Merrill / Staff

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New York

Jeremy Manore, an 18-year-old from central New Jersey, subscribes to several magazines and reads books constantly – John Steinbeck and F. Scott Fitzgerald are among his favorite writers. When he came home from his elite Massachusetts boarding school for Thanksgiving, Jeremy brought three books to read, his mother, Sandy Manore, says. But he wasn’t carting heavy volumes in a backpack.

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Instead, he’d checked out a Kindle – a wireless reading device – from his school library, and downloaded the books he wanted to read. Jeremy’s school, Cushing Academy in Ashburnham, Mass., is the first in the US to digitize its entire collection. This fall, it began moving its 20,000-volume library aside to make room for a “learning center,” complete with laptop study stations and a fleet of new e-readers with access to millions of digitized books.

“[We] were really excited when Cushing went digital,” Mrs. Manore says. The switch to electronic books increased the breadth and depth of her son’s reading, she says, because the books available to him are no longer limited by what can fit into Cushing’s library’s physical space. “It gives them access to more literature without having to buy it.”

Not everyone has been so enthusiastic. Cushing’s decisive step into the new world of reading has put it on the front lines of a battle between traditionalists, who see the glue-and-paper codex as a fundamental part of the learning experience, and e-reading evangelists, who argue that electronic reading – with its promise of limitless reach – is the logical next step for the 21st-century student.

“When I look at books, I see an outdated technology, like scrolls before books,” Cushing headmaster James Tracy told The Boston Globe in September. He was referring specifically to academic research, although the quote – which quickly careened around the blogosphere – was heralded by many critics as proof of the beginning of the end of the paper book.

Ink-and-paper lovers flooded the comments section of the Globe’s website, demanding his dismissal; the Cushing plan was called an Orwellian – even Hitlerian – form of book burning.

“There is no humanity reading a book on a computer,” wrote an anonymous commenter on the popular site ParentDish .com. “You have lost the interaction with the page. How sorry I am for all of you who will never know the pleasure of turning the pages of a book.”

The furor over the digitization of Cushing – whose bruised administration refused to speak to the Monitor – is a taste of what’s to come as a new future of reading shapes up. The year 2010 is widely seen as a tipping point when the e-book, once an avant-garde oddity, begins to supplant the hidebound codex. As Mr. Tracy noted, this transition, sweeping in scale, recalls nothing less than the move from stone tablets and scrolls to the bound volume.