I have mixed feelings about the relationship between the Internet and the book. On one hand, I am a bibliophile in the very traditional sense of the word. I hate reading books on the computer -- anything longer than 25 pages, and I start jonesing for a paper copy. I also love owning books; despite a long-standing affection for libraries, I prefer to have the books for myself. I like how books smell, I like how they feel, I like cover design and font choice and different binding options. I am a bookstore junkie. I've been known to up and out to a bookstore at all hours of the day or night because I'm bored, anxious, happy, or just came into some money I'd like to blow very quickly on something I won't get to for months. Often, all of the free space in my apartment is given over to books.
On the other hand, I'm also a giant internet junkie, and have been for more than ten years. My PhD research focuses on online fan communities, but if it's something cool and it's online, I probably like it, or at least have an opinion. I love Wikipedia and blogs, I love Facebook, I loved Usenet, I love LiveJournal and vid communities, I love memes and Twitter and online news and webcomics. I think the internet is straight up awesome.
So when this guy decided to accost me about how the internet was destroying the minds of young people, I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, yeah, people probably aren't reading books as much anymore. But how many people were reading them anyways? I've been a book-person long enough to know that most people aren't, never have been, and never will be book-people. I never had the expectation that tons of people were picking up Blood Meridian just for the hell of it. Book-people are the definition of a subculture.
Earlier in the day, I'd revisited a 2008 Harper's magazine essay by Ursula K. LeGuin, called "Staying Awake: Notes on the alleged decline of reading". While ranging over a number of different subjects, there are two points I want to bring out. First, she shares my belief that most people probably don't, and never have, read on a regular basis. Second, she points out that during the 'Golden Age' of reading in the United States (which she puts between 1850 and 1950), reading was not simply a private activity or a method of gaining cultural capital. It was also a fundamentally social activity:
"The shared experience of books was a genuine bond. A person reading seems to be cut off from everything around the, almost as much as someone shouting banalities into a cell phone as they ram their car into your car--that's the private aspect of reading. But there is a large public element, too, which consists in which you and others have read."
This social aspect of reading is fulfilled, these days, by chat about television, movies, and yes, sometimes even books (Harry Potter being the first thing that comes to mind). But it's also fulfilled by the internet, and that's where I think the problem comes in. Many of the pop-sociology/psychology books that have come out in the last few years -- Nicholas Carr's The Shallows, Andrew Keen's The Cult of the Amateur, or, my personal favourite, Mark Bauerlein's The Dumbest Generation -- emphasize the fundamental difference of internet-based reading from book-based reading.* This is usually understood through a good tradition/bad technology lens. But fundamentally, books are a technology. They're an information technology, a communications technology, and a social technology. And while the experience of reading a book is different than the experience of reading online, both experiences can be valuable.
Much of the writing on Book vs. Internet treat the two mediums as entirely separate, as though the internet cannot enhance book reading, and vice versa. This has not been my experience. I've found my reading, both academic and personal, to be greatly improved by easy access to the internet -- it's helped me pick out allusions that I would not otherwise have caught, learn historical facts that flesh out novels and non-fiction, and find commentary from both critics and authors on the process of reading and writing. Similarly, having a library of books has helped my online experience -- I have authorities to turn to when I suspect something isn't right, and I have beloved stories and passages to share with other bibliophiles online. My reading isn't bounded by the technology through which I do it -- it's all reading to me. And yes, it's probably not like that for everyone. But in the end, it probably never was.
*Note: This literature is very different from the literature on the importance of maintaining physical (rather than electronic) book collections. Robert Darnton's The Case For Books is an excellent, non-polemical and accessible piece in that tradition.