Many partisans of the book consider the image of modern Americans transfixed by their smartphones to represent the antithesis of a literate culture. But that’s all it is: an image, and as Maud Newton’s anecdote testifies, appearances can be deceiving. As a literary critic, I frequently hear the wistful confessions of people who say they “don’t have the time” to read books anymore. If the only way to read a book is to don a smoking jacket and settle into a leather armchair for the entire evening with a hardcover and a snifter of brandy, well, then few of us do.
We're all aware that the web has changed the way we read, and that mobile is changing the web. It follows, of course, that mobile is changing the way we read. With the rise of apps like Oyster and the ability to check out library books directly from your phone comes a shift in the way we experience text.
But it's not just the act itself that is changing; the perceptions and societal norms that follow the act are undergoing a subtle shift, too. When that happens (as with any shift), it takes time for norms to catch up with the experience.
That's why Clive Thompson experiences a stark difference in the way people look at him when he takes his kids to the park and reads either a physical book or a digital one. It's also why he's thinking of having a T-shirt made that reads "Piss off! I'm reading War and Peace."