eReaders refocus on critical reading skills

In honor of National Reading Month, this week retail giant offered a $20 discount on all Kindle models, slashing the price of the basic model to just $49.

I used to think the Kindle was an idiotic device, or, at best, something you could read while holding a snifter in the other hand. With the Kindle app on my phone, iPad, and even desktop, I couldn’t understand why anybody would shell out for a device on which all you can do is read. I recently gave my iPad to my younger brother and bought myself a Kindle after realizing that the problem with having a device that allows you to do anything and read, is that you will do anything but read.

With talk becoming increasingly cheap, critical reading — the ability to discern underlying patterns from the deluge of information we are presented with — is an increasingly important skill. But, as a willing victim of our over-sharing culture, I find myself skimming through text with the pointless goal of trying to be the first one to “break” the news to my semi-avid following. This means I end up sharing stuff that no one else finds interesting, and that I lose interest in shortly after. When using my Kindle, I at least have to put it down before sharing my profound revelations.

This is not, by any means, ground-breaking thought. Open any introductory text on economics, and you can read about Tom and Harry struggling on an imaginary island which bizarrely has only fish and coconuts. They quickly realize that if one fishes and the other gathers, they will both be slightly less miserable on their island, what economists call “maximizing their comparative advantage.” The idea that specialization and subsequent trade is beneficial to all parties is as old as the field itself.

This idea also explains last month’s $19 billion acquisition of WhatsApp, a cross-platform messaging service with a huge user base, by Facebook, social media giant and industry icon. Facebook has enjoyed its monopoly of the social media industry for years but is realizing that it faces a threat from more specialized services. If I can blog on Tumblr and Twitter, share photos on Instagram (another Facebook aquisition) and interact with my future boss on LinkedIn, why should I use Facebook?

Facebook is making the same realization that Tom and Harry did: you can’t do everything and be the best at it. Its blogging, photo-sharing and mobilizing features are being eclipsed by services that are simply more dedicated. Newer apps like Whisper and Secret, which allow users to interact anonymously, are now moving in to satisfy an even more basic human desire: expression without repercussion. As the gender-confused arms dealer Max in Mission Impossible said, “Anonymity… is like a warm blanket.”

The challenge for Facebook in the coming years will be to demonstrate to its users why they should still use it. I’ve already deleted the app from my phone, and instructed my browsers to limit me to 10 minutes a day. My productivity has gone up, and I feel better about myself too. I’ve kept Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram for now, and I have nothing on my Kindle. I like it better that way. I still don’t read as much as I would like to, but my desire to maximize my $69 (I purchased mine before National Reading Month) coupled with the absence of any other apps means I’ve at least been reading more, and, hopefully, am wiser for it.

Anshu Siripurapu is a sophomore majoring in political economy.