Read Only

The NY Times today released the first part of a series dedicated to investigating “how the Internet and other technological and social forces are changing the way people read.” Hoo boy. Let the games begin.

On first read, I’d say that author Motoko Rich strives for an admirable balance between two factions dedicated to defending their particular reading practices. For every study of declining test scores and reading for pleasure, she cites online readers’ descriptions of their own practices or new literacy scholars.

From this format, we can see a surprising tone that both boosters and naysayers of digital reading share: a relatively consistent dismissal of alternate format. For instance, Rich cites Dana Gioia of the NEA:“Whatever the benefits of newer electronic media they provide no measurable substitute for the intellectual and personal development initiated and sustained by frequent reading.” At the same time, we have fluent digital readers who have this to say about print books: “The Web is more about a conversation. Books are more one-way.”

The article carefully cites the number of material factors to consider as we weigh a shift in reading habits: the socioeconomic benefits of print literacy, its deep integration into school curricula, the challenges it presents for students with learning differences. But these considerations are buried deep on page 3 of the article, in a way that suggests they’re simply fodder for the bigger issue–the deep psychological investment in the way that reading inflects our daily lives, and that no one is willing to be told that their preferred method is lacking in some way.

I find myself perched uncomfortably between these two ways of reading and the assumptions of superiority they promulgate. When Gioia says: “What we are losing in this country and presumably around the world is the sustained, focused, linear attention developed by reading,” a portion of my heart goes pitter pat. Does reading a novel require that sustained attention? Obviously. And I’m willing to believe (until a neuroscientist tells me different) that there’s a cognitive benefit to it, as well as a pleasure to be taken in it. But I’m also not willing to believe that all digital reading is the short-attention span theater that Gioia assumes and of which Rich provides examples. When Nadia is reading fan fiction stories that run “45 web pages,” we’re talking about focused attention, and we’d have to study Nadia’s reading practices to convince ourselves that it wasn’t sustained or linear. In addition, the statement ignores the sociality of reading a number of digital sources on a similar topic.

On the other side of the fence (here I am, perched on a cliche), I’m taken aback by the digital readers’ characterizations of books. At least two of the young people interviewed take issue with books’ unitary nature–either as a fixed plot structure or singularity of voice. This also seems to be a mis-characterization of what print readers love about books, wherein the process of interpretation makes a book an archive of alternatives. [This assumes, of course, that you include interpretation in your definition of reading, I suppose.]

I’m anxious to see how others perceive the coverage in the Times. For now, however, I’m struck by the gulf between readers, and the very little coverage (and study?) of how omnivorous readers characterize pleasure, benefit and drawbacks of their reading practices across media

3 thoughts on “Read Only

  1. Pingback: Books and Magazines Blog » Archive » Read Only

  2. To see really exciting new multimedia literacy try out Inanimate Alice. And its a free online resource!
    More an interactive piece of fiction than a traditional game, Inanimate Alice: Episode 4 continues the story of the young game animator as she leaves her home in Russia and travels abroad. Inanimate Alice serves as both entertainment and a peek into the future of literature as a fusion of multimedia technologies. The haunting images and accompanying music and text weave a remarkably gripping tale that must be experienced to be believed.
    And better still for schools there is a piece of software now available that allows learners to create their own stories. Valuable for all forms of literacy and this is being sold as a perpetual site licence for schools at £99 !

  3. I read it too — over strawberry pamcakes in West Hartford coincidentally — which reminds me how much leisure reading is, has been, will probably always be? a past time of those who can afford it (time-wise at the very least).

    I’m interest to see where the series goes (if I don’t forget about it as soon as I finish this post). And looting it for my spring grad class which remains stubbornly amorphous. But I think that there’s always going to be hand-wringers like those who disparaged novel reading as something only worthy of low class folks, or penny dreadfuls or pulps etc.

    I am certain that people are reading more now than in a generation previous. I do think there’s no technology quite as satisfyingly portable as a paperback book. The demise of the book has been predicted repeatedly yet POD machines have made it possible to create even more books — and may *finally* be changing the way publishers work.

    Here’s to an end to the practice of returns (says the author with too few royalty checks these days).

    Are people reading better? worse? Hell if I know. I think one of the main problems about all these tests and studies is the way people are defining “reading” and measuring the wrong things. Most readers are Alice, and seeing no pictures or conversation on the page, get bored and skip over to something else (even a dream on a hot summer day).

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