Why NYC Subway Riders Still Read Books

"Real" books don't require up-front fees and they can be borrowed from friends and the library. Is there anything more special than sharing a favorite childhood book with family? Tablets can't compete.
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I feel like with e-books, you often just get a meal on the same white plate as all the other meals. But a nice hardcover is like having a place setting, having dinnerware selected to suit the food. The story is still the main thing you're there for but the choices around it -- the paper stock, the way the book is typeset, the selection of fonts -- they add their own subtle flavors to the experience of that story.

- Web Designer Jack Cheng

Did you know the NYC subway goes all the way to Chicago? And it has more stations than any other system in the world -- a total of 468. The Big Apple depends on its public transportation. In 2012, it carried over a billion riders, according to Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which serves a population of 15.1 million people in New York City, Long Island, southeastern New York State and Connecticut.

A typical subway experience can be an adventure: riders sitting in more than one seat, straphangers bobbing to their music, the crazies, the snoozers, the gamers and the readers. Some readers prefer their handheld devices, holding on to a pole with one hand and their tablet with the other. But many still crack open their books to escape into another world.

From the birth of the Kindle in 2007, e-book sales have skyrocketed and even topped print sales last year. Today, roughly one in three adults owns one.

But is it a battle of handheld e-books vs. printed paper or simply a fight for share of attention? Are e-books the real winners or are paper-and-ink books losing ground to a slew of cheap or free portable entertainment available on one device?

Roger Santos, a NYC native and twenty-three-year-old business student, is a proponent of paper and ink. Although admittedly a huge "tech person," Santos chooses to do some things the old-fashioned way. "I prefer to be as disconnected as I can from certain things as we're always involved with technology in other ways," said Santos.

Mason Turcotte, a 28-year-old theology student from New York, thinks that "technology has overwhelmed our attention." He believes we are dividing our time between too many things and now print may become a casualty in the battle between pixels and ink. "We're losing touch with what's important and instead we're plugging in with machines."

Printed books have a lasting value. Your copy is unique and nostalgic; the words have been massively replicated but only one contains your childhood scribbles or the smell of grandma's house within the pages. The Bible that Turcotte owns contains many highlighted passages and many pages marked with stars, underlines, hearts, connections, page references, comments and interpretations scribbled in by hand. Of the 6 billion Bibles printed in the world, Turcotte's is one of a kind.

There are a number of things to consider in the battle between paper and pixel: cost, physical limitations, reading comprehension and interactive capabilities to name a few. Paper prevails in every measure.

Books foster a sense of physical connection that New Yorkers need. "I get a great sense of satisfaction closing the cover at the end of a book," said Santos. Books offer readers like Santos a way of interacting with the physical world that a tablet simply can't replicate. There is something about a bookmark sticking out of your novel that entreats one to pick it back up and give it more quality time. Yes it's helpful to roll over a word for a definition; but life is about tradeoffs and for many the tactile pleasures of paper are priceless.

Speaking of prices, a multi-function tablet like a Kindle will set you back $80-$500, and that's before you buy any books. "Real" books don't require up-front fees and they can be borrowed from friends and the library. Is there anything more special than sharing a favorite childhood book with family? Tablets can't compete.

The medium is the message for tablet and book readers, creating a symbiotic relationship by which the medium influences how the message is perceived.

People approach computers and tablets with a state of mind that is less conducive to learning than the one they bring to paper. Some studies even suggest that people read slower, less accurately and less comprehensively on screens than on paper because our brain processes printed digital and printed text in different ways.

John Stryker, a 58-year-old Manhattan native, is an advocate for print newspapers; opening the morning paper is part of his morning ritual. "There's a more authentic feel to receiving my news in print versus the online alternatives people are using now. The Internet is filled with too much clutter, noise and lies." Stryker also noted the functionality of newspaper clippings. "If I like an article, I'll cut it out and save it or put it on a co-workers' desk for them to read instead of filling their inbox with another email."

NYC subway riders embrace e-readers for a number of reasons, most notably: portability, accessibility and convenience. Is print dead? Not necessarily. Print doesn't have to become obsolete for digital to flourish; they're different and complementing experiences. Our world is increasingly immersed in technology. Let's hold on to this special treasure for a little while longer. At least until the next stop.

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