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Reading “Words Onscreen”

“It’s not a book. It doesn’t have a smell, you don’t touch it…, you’re plugged into the internet, you can’t concentrate, it hurts your eyes, and you lose the beauty of the words behind this screen.”

IMG_4637So states an undergraduate student in Naomi S. Baron’s Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World (Oxford University Press, 2015). Brandishing empirical evidence and incisive thinking, Dr. Baron – a linguistics professor at American University in Washington, DC – challenges the conjecture, anecdote, and ageism that typically short-circuit the debate on the comparative advantages and effects of print versus digital reading.

Baron assesses the pros and cons of print and onscreen reading (from both readers’ and writers’ viewpoints), presents comparative data gathered on American and Japanese undergraduate students’ reading choices and preferences in print and onscreen (and why these are made), and considers the cultural components of reading and how these are informing the current print/digital divide. Her research and conclusions are compelling.

Among Baron’s comparatives are the solitary nature of reading in print and the sociability of reading onscreen, the concentration afforded by paper and the distraction invited by digital, the durability of annotating on paper and the ephemerality of digital annotation, rereading and one-off reading, reading for knowledge and reading for information, acquiring an understanding of the whole and consuming a text as discontinuous fragments. She detonates the myth that older readers are stuck in an analogue age while younger readers are digital devotees whose habits portend the end of print.

The undergraduate student research subjects preferred print for serious reading by a significant measure and for reasons that their professors need to hear. In these students’ experience, reading and annotating print better enables learning, understanding, and thinking about substantial or complex matters. The pressure on the professoriate to replace printed texts and textbooks with “free” or cheaper digital texts is not driven by student demand (as is often claimed anecdotally). In turn, Baron proposes, the move to these online reading sources feeds an impulse to reading and writing shorter, simpler texts that are more easily consumed in the cacophony of an onscreen environment.

Accompanying the classroom trend is academic libraries’ shift to acquiring only digital versions of books, rather than complementing print collections with digital copies. Baron and others suggest that in the future, it is the leisure reading paperback that will be replaced by digital, while literary fiction and non-fiction will continue to command print. Publishers, including university presses, have evolved a hybrid model of print and digital publication that makes such collections viable. In my view and following Baron’s findings, by building such a collections, academic libraries would recognize, foster, and facilitate different ways of reading that are essential to research and education in the 21st century. Moving to digital only and the kind of reading that the screen supports, shifts the library’s role to that of a transmitter of information at the expense of collection and care of human knowledge over millennia.

My experience reading Words Onscreen resonated with the intangibles that Baron qualifies and quantifies in her study. Normally, as with probably 80% of my academic reading, I would have skimmed through this book as a source of information, seeking its thesis, data, and conclusions by accessing and scanning the digital version onscreen through the University of Alberta library (which also holds a print copy). However, my hardback was a gift from a friend, and I carried it to read during flights on a mid-summer journey, anticipating delays wrought by thunderstorms, peak travel, and broken aircraft. All came to pass, creating the luxury of lengthy hours for uninterrupted, slow and deep reading.

The hardcopy book is ergonomically friendly, remaining open on its own, fitting comfortably in my hands or on a table as I moved through airports and airplanes, with a tangible and reassuring weight (both physically and intellectually, and slightly lighter than my iPad). It also offers varying textures of page and cover papers pleasing to touch, ease in flipping back and forth between sections and in using the index, and was gentle on the eyes over long hours in varying light conditions. Its visibility as an object in and by itself – in contrast to an electronic device in which the book disappears when not open on the screen and competes with equally tempting texts when it is open – encouraged undistracted engagement with the author’s thinking, questioning, storytelling, and reasoning. That is, with the complexities of the subject at hand, the nuances of the argument, the persuasiveness of the evidence, and, above all, reflection during and after periods of reading, leading to a deeper understanding, retention, and appreciation of the work.

This is not what we want from everything we read, of course, and few of us would relinquish our digital, onscreen reading. The important question that Baron poses and to which we must attend, however, is

“whether the affordances of reading onscreen lead us to a new normal. One in which length and complexity and annotation and memory and rereading and especially concentration are proving more challenging than when reading in hardcopy. One in which we are willing to say that if the new technology doesn’t encourage these approaches to reading, maybe these approaches aren’t so valuable after all.”

Professor Baron leaves us with the conclusion that business and educational institutions – not readers and writers – are changing the “culture of reading…by replacing print with screens.” And asks, “Who benefits?”

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