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How Smart Phones and E-Readers Improve Literacy

October 23, 2011
English: Borders Books at 1807 Fordham Bouleva...

Sometimes we just couldn't tell if this store was open or not. Image via Wikipedia

Two guys were standing outside an old Borders store that had just closed down and were peering through the windows at a large vacant darkened lot. 

“I really miss Borders,” the first guy said.  “I could browse through this store for hours and hours.” 

The second guy pulled out a smart phone and began playing with it.  “Oh yeah?  Well, I can browse through books for hours and hours on my phone.” 

The first guy said, ‘I could pull out any book in the store and read the first few pages to see if I liked it.” 

“I can download free samples of any book on my phone and see if I like it.” 

“I could purchase an overpriced cup of coffee and just relax in a literary atmosphere for as long as I wished,” sighed the first guy. 

“I can use my phone to find the closest place where I can purchase an overpriced cup of coffee and enjoy a literary atmosphere… ugh!  That sucks!” 

“What’s wrong?” the first guy asked. 

“The closest place to buy an overpriced cup of coffee and enjoy a literary experience is Borders,” the second guy said.  “This stupid app hasn’t updated yet.” 


We dysfunctional literates love to read, but sometimes we don’t want other people to know we love to read.  If you’ve got buddies who love football, or video games, or topless clubs, it’s tough to explain how reading a good book is better than those other activities (It’s cheaper.  It’s less mind numbing.  It’s less likely to give me a transmittable disease.) . 

I also love to browse through book stores.  When I was a little kid, I hung out at a Book Nook.  The Book Nook shut down when a B. Dalton Bookseller (or was it a Waldenbooks?) opened nearby.  Later on, the B. Dalton closed when a Borders opened up.  When the Kindles and the Nooks came around and could be downloaded for free on smart phones, the Borders closed down. 

At any rate, having an electronic reader on my smart phone has changed the way I read books.  And if it’s changing me, it’s probably changing others (an anecdotal assertion with no statistical proof to back it up).  

I used to be self-conscious about reading books in public.  I didn’t mind strangers seeing me read a book in public (like a restaurant or movie theater), but there was always a chance of running into somebody I knew.  Getting caught reading a book in public was an admission of guilt.  It was like admitting you didn’t have friends.  It was like admitting nobody liked you.  It was like admitting you hid from your personal problems behind the pages of a book (which is better than hiding from your problems behind booze, drugs, or promiscuity). 

The Kindle (or Nook) helped out with that because a lot of people didn’t know what an electronic reading device was and instead of seeing a lonely (from their point of view) guy reading, they saw a cool guy with a cool electronic device.  The problem with the Kindle when it first came out was that curious strangers wanted to know what it was, thereby interrupting my literary experience.  Instead of asking me, “Is that a good book?” the question was, “What is that?” 

Now that I can download the Kindle, or the Nook, or any other e-reader whose name I do not know, onto my phone, I can read a book, and nobody will bug me because everybody knows what a smart phone looks like.  And I look like a cool guy because I’ve got the latest in cool technology (nobody can see that I’m using it to read an uncool book).  I might look like one of those tools who fiddles with a smart phone in public, but it’s better to look like a phone tool than a book nerd. 

Reading a book while everybody else thinks you’re messing with cool technology?  That’s a genius way to improve literacy! 


1.    Be stationary.  Walking while reading (or texting, or Angry Birding) can be dangerous.  Sit or stand while reading.  I’m just trying to look out for you.  The world loves seeing a phone tool stumble in public, and somebody else with a smart phone will capture it and put it on the internet for the world to mock you

2.    Look up a lot.  No matter how caught up you are in your book/ text/game, be aware of your surroundings.  You might be in your own little world while you’re on your phone, but in the meantime you are still surrounded by a very dangerous world filled with creeps who prey upon the oblivious.

3.     Not in the car.  Not even at red lights.  Put that phone away while you’re driving.  When you’re in your car, you are moments away from death at any given second. 

Follow these rules, and you can be a cool technology guy (or babe) without getting conked on the head by a deviant, or hit by a car while you’re walking, or stumbling into a food table with a bunch of phone camcorders focused on you. 

Read!  But be safe!

  1. I got a good laugh out of this… I’m a fellow book nerd who, I will admit, will in face read his Nook or read on my iPhone in public. The strangest moment ever was when I was at a mall reading on a bench and a little old lady sat down next to me to ask if I could look up what time a store closed on my phone. I was so impressed, and confused, that this possibly 80-something lady could sound perfectly normal asking for me to use a smart phone to do anything.

    Imagine my surprise when, as it was taking a few minutes, she wisely commented “Ah, i know, they really need to get 3G around here already!”

    I nearly fell over!

    Anyway, great article!

  2. Hey, what’s wrong with being a book nerd? Nerds and geeks are well-paid, highly-regarded peeps where I live. Now, a tool is a tool is a tool and will probably always be a tool.

    Nicely written post and “an anecdotal assertion with no statistical proof to back it up.” Man, that was totally cool.

    Book Nerd and proud of it!

    • I’m a book nerd too, but I try to hide that from my non-book-nerd friends (which is part of being a dysfunctional literate), so to my barely literate friends (whom I like hanging around), being a phone tool is better than being a book nerd, so sometimes I act like a phone tool (which probably makes me a tool tool) to cover up my book nerd behavior.
      I might have to rethink this.

  3. Thanks for this! I teach middle school and am always trying to get my kids to “steal a few moments of reading” whenever they can — and wherever they can. This helps!

  4. I teach middle school too. I require my students to become book nerds come hell or high water. They read 24 books a year. I have yet to convert to the electronic reading device world, but give me time. I just donated the last of my VHS the other day and giving up tapes took me until college.

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