07/12/2012 12:15 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Turning the Page on How We Read

While sitting in a waiting room recently, I observed an elderly couple reading. The man tilted his head toward the woman and asked, "What percent are you?"

"Fifty-two," she said.

"Eighty-five," he responded.

The two went back to their e-readers.

Welcome to the new bookspeak. In e-reader lexicon, instead of grabbing a book, we pick up a device. In lieu of the page we're up to, it's the percentage we've completed.

Page numbers: a footnote in the history of reading?

The Association of American Publishers' report on book sales for the first quarter of 2012 is more validation than news: sales of eBooks surpassed those of hardcover print books, $282 million to $230 million.

In the current eBook tsunami, it's disconcerting for this midcentury baby boomer to lose such basic navigational aids as page numbers. The electronic reading storm has cut their cables, setting proud old page numbers adrift, sinking to the bottom or wallowing in the currents, destined to be cast up on some distant shore called long ago.

Will page numbers even be denied their traditional role in footnotes?

As I write this, I am gazing at a handsome hardcover of The Iliad resting rather weightily on my desk, admiring its glossy black dust jacket with its elegant gold type, the black ribbon bookmark extending languidly from its creamy pages. I have not read the print version but have listened to the audio recording. So come to think of it, percentage might be more relevant than page numbers here as well.

I felt particularly justified in listening to this great work, since it was originally oral and was committed to writing only when it was already an old story. Today, owning the printed version is an affordable luxury I indulge in -- and there is no better way to dip into its river of thought than to leaf through its beautiful pages.

But getting back to that couple in the waiting room -- it's actually a marvelous thing that two people can so easily read a book together. Of course, we could do this when books were limited to print, but it wasn't common. Both readers could have their own copy. Or they could share one. A few years back during a plane trip, I watched as a couple read together. The man ripped his paperback in half and gave the first half to his wife. (Even I, who likes to get physical with books, was a bit disturbed by that move.)

For years I've asked people what they're reading; these days, I'm also asking how they're reading. I've been hearing some intriguing things.

Virtual book tastings

One woman, who has always been an avid reader, told me she reads even more books now just because it's so easy to get new books on her e-reader.

And e-readers do appear to be causing a growth spurt in reading. The AAP reports that in 2010, when e-readers were gaining traction, the market for trade books in all reading formats grew nearly six percent from 2008, to $13.94 billion.

Most of us have had the experience of just finishing a book and not wanting to say goodbye. Now, with a few clicks, we can be reading another book by that author in minutes. What's not to love?

I asked another reader whether he consults the New York Times bestsellers list in choosing his books. He looked at me as if I were a simpleton.

"Oh, the Times is way behind," he explained. "I see what's popular online and read a sample for free. And besides, there are all these really cheap books available that are great reads."

In an ingenious reversal of showrooming (that practice of walking into stores to touch the merchandise, only to go home and order online), I heard from one man who says he samples books at Amazon, decides what he wants, and then walks into his brick-and-mortar bookstore to buy the print versions.

Too many readers are still stymied by the clean-your-plate mentality -- a feeling of guilt if they give up on a book. But I say, if you're not giving up on at least 10 books a year, you're not sampling enough -- not truly opening up yourself to your rich inheritance as a reader that awaits you. I also recommend the 50-page rule: give a book 50 pages, and then give it the heave-ho if it doesn't hold your interest. (Although now we'll have to substitute a 15 percent rule for the 50-page.) Sampling books with ease may be my favorite aspect of electronic books.

The books (still) on the bookshelf

Another blessing of electronic books is that they have solved the space problem. And I'm not referring to the advantage of taking an e-reader on vacation instead of a satchel full of books; I'm talking about your home library.

In the print era, many book lovers only with regret culled books from their library. "I can't add a book unless I'm willing to give one up," lamented Stanley Marcus, when we visited his elegant home in Dallas years ago. And he had a huge library, amassed over his long, well-read life.

But now that we can keep track of what we've read in a virtual library, such as Good Reads, Library Thing or Shelfari, we can also keep our notes on those books in the bookish cloud, and see them on our virtual shelves; it doesn't hurt so much to say goodbye to some of the ones less important to us.

One of the very best practices for a well-read life is to avidly build a library of books you might like to read -- your Library of Candidates, as I call it. With electronic access, you don't have to actually buy these books ahead of time and have them on your shelf, beckoning to you (although it's a sweet luxury if you have the space for it). Instead, you can depict them in your electronic library -- your wish library -- and then get them virtually in your hands in minutes. How heavenly.

So today you can, with an easy mind, fill your home library of printed books with only your very favorites. Today we can each build a privately curated museum of printed treasures.

Hardcovers as time capsules

I realize many people are still reluctant to write in their books -- Preservationists, I call them, as opposed to Footprint Leavers, like myself. Bless you, Preservationists, for your thoughtfulness in imagining that someone else may want to read your book in its original condition someday. But I urge you to turn the page on that particular noble sentiment; with eBooks, people can always read unmarked books.

Instead of showing what Anne Fadiman calls courtly love, indulge in her carnal love. Get physical with your physical books -- mark them boldly with your name and quirky marginalia; add the dates of when you read your books and where. Upon review, these marks will bring your reading experience rushing back to life and help you retain what you wish to hold in your mind and heart.

Interleave ephemera such as ticket stubs to the movie adaptation. Tuck printouts of emails you exchanged on the book, or your own typed review, inside the dust jacket (which makes such a nice little folder). Your hardcover books become personal time capsules -- compact, beautiful, and lasting.

Know that it's your personal marks in your books that not only make your book a unique artifact for your own enjoyment, but for the enjoyment of your family members who may outlive you, and for your grateful descendants.

In his award-winning history The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, Stephen Greenblatt tells the story of how a canny librarian purchased a marked-up, 1563 Latin edition of On the Nature of Things for a few hundred pounds. When the librarian's hunch proved correct, the value of the book, both monetarily and historically, was immense. That marked-up book was none other than Montaigne's personal copy.

Of course, most of us will not be historical figures, but we are beloved by our own families, and especially by our survivors. Let's give them something to talk about -- hidden inside the cherished antiques your hardcovers will become.

Support what you love

Printed books are declining faster than any projections, according to a major book printer. And Bowker Market Research reports that the market share for hardcovers dropped from 46 percent in 2009 to 39 percent in just two years.

So vote with your dollars and buy hardcover editions of the books you care about most -- for the same reason we should send handwritten notes via first-class mail: to support the commercial arts we love. In the words of author Lynn Twist, "What we appreciate, appreciates."

Besides, what do you actually own with an eBook? Not the book. That hardcover, on the other hand, is yours to hold and love and hand down.

At a dinner party last week, my table mate was telling me about a toddler she saw who ambled up to a coffee table book and swiped her finger gently on the page in an attempt to make it turn.

Will we have to teach new generations what pages were, the way we wonder how buttonhooks worked? When we say to a group of young people, "Let's all get on the same page here," will they gaze back with a quizzical look?

Call me romantic, but I hope the page metaphor will linger. After all, we still speak of turning down the lights (harkening back to gaslight, I suppose) and dialing phone numbers.

But it's not just the metaphor of the page that I hope will live on. Like The Iliad, some pages -- physical, bound, well-turned and even annotated -- still belong on our bookshelves.

How about you -- how are you reading now? I'd love to hear.