Why the Cell Phone May Save the Novel

I like to watch people’s reading habits when I’m at airports and on airplanes. During several recent flights, which included some lengthy layovers and delays, I noticed that not very many people were reading novels, at least not ones in the form of books made of paper. I didn’t see all that many people reading on tablets, e-readers, or laptop computers either. What I saw, more than anything else, were people reading on cell phones.

The people reading their cell phones were not necessarily reading novels, of course. I personally would not want to read a novel on a cell phone, nor would I want to watch a movie on one. The screen is too small and uncomfortable. But not everyone sees it that way. Readership studies show that many people do like to read books on cell phones, and the numbers are increasing.

How Americans Read

According to a Pew Research study of Americans’ reading habits, last year 32 percent of e-book readers 18 and older read books on their cell phones. That is a higher percentage than people who read e-books on a computer (29 percent). The highest percentage of readers still read e-books on e-readers (57 percent) and tablets (55 percent), and many people use multiple platforms.

As a novelist and professor of literature, I am very interested in the future of the novel and have written elsewhere (including in this article in APU Life magazine) about my concerns that its popularity may wane in this era in which readers are used to being entertained by shorter chunks of information such as Tweets, Facebook posts, blogs, and YouTube videos. Will readers who have grown used to skipping from post to post still have the desire, focus and stamina to work their way through a 350-page novel that contains nothing but words? Have we grown too distracted?

I still worry about that, but this trend of reading books on cell phones, more than any other trend, gives me hope for the novel. Why does the cell phone make so much difference? One reason is that, unlike the e-reader or even the tablet, most people almost always have their phone with them. If they get caught up in a novel, they might find themselves dipping into it at times when they otherwise would not be reading anything—in a doctor’s waiting room, in a line at the store, in an airport terminal. Potential readers who might never think to bother with a novel in other circumstances—such as going to a bookstore to buy one or messing with an e-reader—might be more likely to read one if they could easily access it from their phone.

How the Cell Phone Increases Reading Around the World

Another reason I think the cell phone-reading trend is good news for the novel is that this practice is even more prevalent in other countries, especially developing countries in places such as Africa, than in the United States. A study by the United Nations organization, UNESCO, showed that 62 percent of people in developing countries now read more because they are able to do so on cell phones. In many countries covered in the study, such as Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Nigeria and others, physical books are prohibitively expensive, while open-access books cost as little as 2 or 3 cents each.

The UNESCO study showed that about a third of readers in these countries use their phones for reading books, and about 80 percent of the population has access to cell phones. What kinds of books are they reading? The study showed that the most popular genre was romance novels.

In addition to the countries covered by the UNESCO study, other nations also have a large number of people reading books on cell phones. One report indicates that more than 25 million people in China read books only on their cell phones.

I believe this trend in reading habits worldwide will not only help the popularity of the novel, but will also lead to changes in the novel itself. The novel of the future may look significantly different from novels written in earlier eras. I plan to comment on that issue in a future blog post.