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E-Readers Uncovered: What and Why People Read on Devices

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Rare is the New Yorker who can resist glancing at the magazine or book of the person next to them on the subway or in the park. But with an increasing number of people getting their magazines and books in digitized form, sneaking a peek has become much more difficult.

One in five adults owned an e-reader as of mid-January, according to recent report by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project – up from one in ten in mid-December.

But the proliferation of these digital devices doesn’t mean their owners have abandoned print books.

“There are actually very few people who exclusively buy e-books,” said Michael Norris, a senior analyst at media research firm Simba Information.

What it does do is prompt the question: What the heck are people choosing to read behind the fancy covers of their iPads, Nooks and Kindles?

WNYC did an informal survey of e-readers in Union Square Park and subway commuters on one unseasonably warm spring afternoon. Results varied from the racy, erotic novel 50 Shades of Grey to Jane Austen’s classic Sense and Sensibility.

Some genres, including certain kinds of fiction — mystery, fantasy, thrillers and romance — are particularly well-suited to e- readers, according to Norris.

“Romance titles tend to be very short,” he said. “They tend to be quick reads and they’re often consumed by women who read one right after another, right after another.”

Downloading is more practical if you want to read, say, the 50 Shades of Grey trilogy back to back or don’t want to lug around a 500-page paperback.

Our survey found that some people use their e-reader just for work – like the sociology professor reading From Max Weber in Union Square. Other segregate their reading based on the experience of reading in print versus on a device.

Christopher Robinson works in publishing and was initially hesitant to join the e-reader revolution. But after his uncle gave him a Barnes & Noble Nook for Christmas, he now does most all his reading electronically – except for art books and poetry. He still prefers to read those two categories in print “because it’s just nicer to have it on a page, away from any distraction, with just the white space of the page.”

Then there’s the discretion factor — some readers prefer the opportunity to read privately even when they’re in public.

For Robinson that means reading some books he never cracked open in paperback form — like chick lit that was given to him by a friend.

“When my mind is just crazy and I just need something to stretch out in, I’ll just pull that up and read through and see who [a character’s] husband is cheating on her with now and who she’s going to kill next,” he said. “I just feel so much freer, because no one can see either way. I need to find more guilty pleasures.”