How Technology Changed Reading

I’m a big reader. Anyone who has ever had the misfortune of stumbling across one of my blog posts will have guessed that. I am also that type of snobbish reader who still believes real books are better than digital or auditory ones. No, I’m not the type who will shame you for not reading real books, but I prefer that I read real books.

Since restarting college, I’ve found myself relying much more on audiobooks and ebooks to fulfill my reading craving, mostly because it enables me to bring multiple books to school on my phone without weighing down my backpack. I was talking to my mother about her college days, when she had massive textbooks and had to print out everything, whereas so many assignments and readings for college classes are now exclusively online.

It got me thinking of how technology has changed reading.

Physical Books

In referring to “technology,” I’m not purely talking about modern technology like computers and smartphones. The development of book technology actually started way before the 20th century.

In my Western Civ class this year, I learned about the Fertile Crescent, a territory believed to be the beginning of all civilization. The earliest type of writing is called cuneiform, dating back to 3200 BC in Sumeria.

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In order to create this text, and soon after to create Egyptian hieroglyphics, people have to physically carve on tablets.

Eventually scrolls replaced carving and ink replaced the engraver.

But it was the Chinese who first came up with the idea of creating stamps of Chinese characters, usually of kings and titles, to stamp on official documents instead of having to write everything.

Printing of books was all done by hand, until the European Renaissance (which I’m ironically learning about in my other Western Civ class). Johannes Gutenberg and a few others took the idea that the Chinese had about stamps and created a massive press which would stamp letters onto a page. Thus, the printing press was created around 1440.

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Books became much easier to print and publish afterwords, especially in the west (as they went by an actual alphabet, whereas much of the east had thousands of characters which is harder to print).

Since then, books haven’t change much, though advancements were made to the printing press and book binding. But the biggest change began happening in the 20th century.


Nowadays, many people read using audiobooks. But back in the 1930’s, “talking books” were invented for the blind. The American Foundation for the Blind established the “Talking Book Program” to provide blind veterans of WWI with reading material.

I always think of the radio programs being popular before the average home owned a TV, where people would listen to stories told over the radio, like short stories in a magazine (anyone else thinking of Haunted Honeymoon from 1986–that is a hilarious movie).

The word “audiobook” wasn’t even invented until the 1970’s, when audiocassettes began to take over the music market.

But audiobooks didn’t really start catching on until the 1990s, when broadband Internet started getting popular. Now it’s impossible to watch Youtube without someone being sponsored by Audible. Audiobooks may have started for the blind, but now they are used by people to save time in our busy lives.

That gets to our final book technology: the rise of the ebook.


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In 1971, Michael Hart began what he called Project Gutenberg, which transferred thousands of classic books into electric editions. Several ebook companies started in the 1990’s and failed.

It was not until 2006 that the Sony Reader came out, and started the ebook market, followed by a familiar name: Amazon’s Kindle in 2007. Between 2002 and 2010, ebook sales leaped from 1% to 20% of the entire book market.

Apple’s iPads and iPhones added to the increase, until it is rare to find a reader who has not read at least one ebook.

The Changes

There are positives and drawbacks to any type of reading, and I’m not here to pass judgement on which reading medium is the best. For each reader it is different.

But it’s fascinating to look back in time and realize just how much reading has changed. People used to be limited in how many books they could travel with, or that you couldn’t drive and read a book at the same time. All that has now changed. You can listen to an audiobook when driving or exercising. You can bring hundreds of books with you on an airplane, all on a tiny device.

Not only that, but due to other technologies like ships, planes, and cars, people who had no access to books (like in Africa) now can share in the great love of reading.

As technology changes, so does the reading community. But that does not mean reading, as you so often hear, is dying. Publishing is still a massive market, but as technology changes, so does the rules of publishing. Technology has made indie authors more marketable. Now, all you need is an Amazon account and some writing ability and you can self-publish a book. Technology has fundementally changed how we read, but I have to believe that that is a good thing.

Where do you see reading technology going next?

What is your view on the changing face of reading? Let me know your thoughts down in the comments, follow my blog for more musings and, as always,

Best wishes in your life full of adventure,

Madame Writer

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