Read Me

I recently had the opportunity to keynote the MarkLogic User Conference. Wired's Chris Anderson set the bar high as the previous day's opener, touching on some of his best-known long tail themes as well as previewing Wired's iPad edition. Those of you who follow this column won't find it surprising that-rather than focus on search or content delivery themes that might seem the obvious intersection between my interests and those of MarkLogic users-I delivered a talk on "Five Things You Need to Know About Digital Natives to Survive in Business."

Having spent more than a year working with an incredible team of contributors and my fellow contributor and editor Heidi Gautschi on the book Dancing With Digital Natives (CyberAge Books, December 2010), I am hyper-focused on the ways in which those who have grown up with digital immersion differ from previous generations and how we must recognize these changes and transform our business models in kind.

I have to admit that many of the ideas I put forth in my speech were intended to provoke. I believe what I say, but I do like to lubricate the wheels of discourse and find that a good turn of phrase can provide much needed momentum. Such is the case with this headline from the National Literacy Trust: "National Literacy Trust Research Reveals More Young People Own a Mobile Phone Than a Book." ReadWriteWeb (RWW) did some excellent analysis of the study and was kind enough to ask for my take on the trust's statement (

Without a doubt, the one thing this study got right was its choice of press release fodder. That headline is one that got picked up and passed around online more than Silly Bandz at your average elementary school. However, the press release doesn't tell the whole literacy story (nor, frankly, could any one report). It does kick off this provocative point: "Findings from new National Literacy Trust research ... reveal that 86% of young people in the UK own a mobile phone, while only 73% have books of their own. The study of over 17,000 young people reveals a strong link between both young people's reading ability and access to books at home."

Fair enough. Having access to books at home will undoubtedly have a positive effect on literacy. However, in addition to my recent focus on Digital Natives, I've also spent a lifetime reading books, including one on preliteracy which encouraged engendering a love of reading through every possible medium: magazines, newspapers, shopping lists, billboards, etc. Certainly, given my predilection for the written word, it isn't a surprise that my 6-year-old loves books and magazines. However, she also loves to play on her Nintendo DS and snags my iPod touch whenever she can. Gee, I wonder where she gets that?

RWW does mention the parental aspect in influencing literate inclinations. I would posit that we must also examine the parental influence in engendering an obsessive affection for cell phones. Yet beyond finger-pointing, we are continuing our evolutional march from tablet carving to hand-written manuscripts to moveable type to nonlinear, socially mediated interactive reading experiences to, well, whatever's next.

So if every kid today has a cell phone, will we as content providers meet them there? One of the first apps I downloaded for my iPod touch was Stanza, a mobile e-reader. I then promptly downloaded some free classic books for me-and my daughter. The nice thing about these wee devices is that they are easy to carry and, in the case of the cell phone, most people won't leave home without them. Thus, there's an opportunity for reading anywhere, to always have something to do in a waiting room or on a train ride.

The fact is, most coverage that picked up the tantalizing cell phone versus books story failed to question the vague statement "access to books." We access books from our library weekly, for example. While I encourage anyone to do the same, particularly if his or her young reader goes through books almost as fast as shoes, there are so very many ways to access books (and many other forms of excellent writing) today and more on the horizon.

I know that the iPad holds an almost magical allure for technophiles. It has also been heralded as a could-be saviour for the beleaguered publishing industry. And considering the aplomb with which Wired's iPad edition was greeted ... well, this whole e-reading thing seems to be inspiring more than just hyperbole.

That gives me hope. While there's a tendency among older generations to imbue undue superiority to the forms they grew up with, we know that despite the advent of television news, papers survived, and despite seemingly infinite cinematic remakes of Robin Hood, kids still enjoy the tale as read by Dad at bedtime. The issue, then, is whether we will pick up our bound books and go home, or if we will bring a compelling reading experience to a generation who expects immediate, nonlinear, socially mediated experiences in all things. Will we meet them where they are-with a good book in hand?