On Scribd, Black found a 1957 tourist map of Bemidji, Minn., where she'd gone to summer camp as a girl. She read a chunk of the Senate's healthcare reform bill, a document called "What's in a Can of Red Bull?" (partial answer: "meat sugar") and the 1894 diary of a woman traveling east from Oregon by wagon.
"We've pretty much reached the point where the supply has now shifted to infinite," said Richard Nash, former head of Soft Skull Press, a small New York publisher. "So the next question is: How do you make people want it?" Part of the answer may be found on Goodreads.com, a digital library and social networking site where millions of members can log in and chat about any book they want, including many that will never see print.
Lori Hettler of Tobyhanna, Pa., runs one of the largest book clubs on Goodreads, with nearly 7,000 members chiming in from all over the globe. Discussions can go on for hundreds of messages, with readers passionately championing -- or eviscerating -- the club's latest selection.
A recommendation by Hettler can help little-known authors find an audience. Her recent picks include M. Clifford's "The Book" and D.H. Haney's "Banned for Life," both self-published efforts.
"Word of mouth goes a long way," Hettler said. "Once I review a book for one guy, he usually has someone he would like me to read, and then that guy has someone he would like me to read. ... It's this wonderful, endless cycle." Hettler may be broadening reading horizons, but some people worry that new technologies will diminish the classic reading experience.
Whereas printed texts often are linear paths paved by the author chapter by chapter, digital books encourage readers to click here or tap there, launching them on side journeys before they even reach the bottom of a page. Some scholars fear that this is breeding a generation of readers who won't have the attention span to get through "The Catcher in the Rye," let alone "Moby-Dick."
"Reading well is like playing the piano or the violin," said the poet and critic Dana Gioia, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. "It is a high-level cognitive ability that requires long-term practice. I worry that those mechanisms in our culture that used to take a child and have him or her learn more words and more complex syntax are breaking down."
But Larry Rosen, a psychology professor at Cal State Dominguez Hills, said it was a mistake to conclude that young people learned less simply because "they are flitting around all over the place" as they read.
"Kids are reading and writing more than ever," he said. "Their lives are all centered around words."
Dr. Gary Small, director of the Center on Aging at UCLA and author of "iBrain," said Internet use activated more parts of the brain than reading a book did.
On the other hand, online readers often demonstrate what Small calls "continuous partial attention" as they click from one link to the next. The risk is that we become mindless ants following endless crumbs of digital data. "People tend to ask whether this is good or bad," he said. "My response is that the tech train is out of the station, and it's impossible to stop."