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E-books much more than a passing fad

SINCE THE AGE of 6, I estimate that I’ve read a couple of thousand books, most of them solely for entertainment.

In our home, though, an impasse between style and comfort has made my lifetime love

of reading a little more difficult to consummate.

The minister of style, to whom I’m married, likes the lamps in the living area just where they are. The minister of comfort, to whom she is married, has his favorite spot on the family couch. Unfortunately, that spot isn’t next to a light, which leads to squinting, which had led me to doing most of my recent recreational reading in bed, in the 15 minutes between my butt hitting the sheets and loss of consciousness.

The iPad mini Santa brought me has changed that. With its bright type and a size compatible to one of my hands, it has me reading more than I have in years. The transition has been painless. I don’t find any loss of enjoyment or retention when in the thrall of an e–book as opposed to a printed one.

All this is on my mind after reading a couple of seemingly contradictory news reports earlier this month.

One, in Publishers Weekly, claims that “unit sales of print books fell just over 9 percent in 2012,” according to a group that tracks such things. The decline was about the same as it was between 2010 and 2011 and seems to indicate a rise in electronic books (or a surge in illiteracy).

However, the other item, in the online Wall Street Journal, notes that e–book readership could be on the wane. According to Nicholas Carr, author of “Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains,” the growth of e–book sales is slowing. Over the last year, the percentage of adults who have read an e–book rose “modestly” from 16 percent to 23 percent. And, while 89 percent of regular book readers said they’d read at least one printed book over the last year, only 30 percent reported reading an e–book.

Carr also notes that “purchases of e–readers are actually shrinking, as consumers opt for multipurpose tablets.”

All this, he feels, could indicate that e–books could fit the same kind of niche as audio books—“a complement to traditional reading, not a substitute.”

So, who’s going to win the battle for readers’ hearts and minds?

I’m a traditionalist—not a Luddite but not an early adopter by any means. Technology is usually closer to high school graduation than diapers by the time I sign the papers.

I want the book-book, the one made of paper, to survive. I want to always be able to go into used bookstores and breathe in the dust of accumulated wisdom.

However, a couple of things in the Wall Street Journal article make me wonder about paper’s durability as our main medium for reading books:

If the percentage who have read an e–book rose from 16 to 23 in one year, that means 44 percent growth, which even by math-challenged journalists’ standards is pretty impressive. String that 44 percent growth out two more years, and about half of us will have read an e–book.

If we’re shunning e–readers for multipurpose tablets, it doesn’t mean people are turning away from e–books. It probably means we like having an e–reader on which we also can check our email or look up a quarterback’s career stats while we’re watching a game on TV.

There will always be books made of paper, a habit almost as old as civilization. We’re probably reading more books than ever when you combine e–books and traditional books (and don’t forget to add audio books, which seem to have mercifully moved away from abridged versions and now usually offer the whole megillah).

But is the e–book a trendy aberration? I don’t think so.

The way I see it, from my dimly lit perch, is that it’s here to stay.

Business Editor Howard Owen writes this biweekly column on business and the economy. He can be reached at 540/ 374-5539 or howen@freelance