For more than 80 years, reading in print has been as natural for me as breathing. Someone writing about one of my books — not e‑books — described me as a “voracious reader.”
That’s why I’ve been skeptical about the growing number of online courses that students are taking and the diverse digital reading they do on their own.
How much of this kind of reading and learning, I wonder, gets and stays inside them?
I’m receiving credible answers from the author of a forthcoming book that should be a must‐read for all Americans concerned with having future generations skilled in critical thinking.
The book, Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World (Oxford University Press, to be published next year), is by Naomi S. Baron, a professor of linguistics and executive director of the Center for Teaching, Research and Learning at American University.
Fortunately, you can now learn much of the essence of her research from her article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “How E‑Reading Threatens Learning in the Humanities” (July 14).
As the title indicates, the scope of Baron’s research goes beyond online courses: “With the coming of e‑readers, tablets and smartphones, reading styles underwent a sea change.”
In all the intense arguments about educational reform, I’ve seen very little about this “sea change” in reading and how it will affect the depth and range of thinking by future generations of Americans.
Baron continues: “For the past five years, I’ve been examining the pros and cons of reading on‐screen versus in print. The bottom line is that while digital devices may be fine for reading that we don’t intend to muse over or reread, text that requires what’s been called ‘deep‐reading’ is nearly always better done in print …
“Digital reading also encourages distraction and invites multitasking.”
Her survey research included university students here and in Germany and Japan. And “among American and Japanese subjects, 92 percent reported it was easiest to concentrate when reading in hard copy (was necessary). (The figure for Germany was 98 percent.) …
“Imagine wrestling with ‘Finnegan’s Wake’ while simultaneously juggling Facebook and booking a vacation flight.”
Of course, earlier in her article, Baron questions: “Are students even reading Milton or Thucydides or Wittgenstein these days?”
Or, I would add, how about Dostoevsky, Dickens, Mann and Tolstoy?
Among the common responses she got from students regarding what they most liked about reading in print (when they had to take time for it) was:
“I can write on the pages and remember the material easier,” and “It’s easier to focus.”
Furthermore, “When asked what they liked least about reading on‐screen, a number of Japanese students reported that it wasn’t ‘real reading,’ while respondents from all three countries complained that they ‘get distracted’ or ‘don’t absorb as much.’ ”
And dig this from Naomi Baron: “My all‐time favorite reply to the question ‘What is the one thing you like least about reading in print?’ came from an American:
“ ‘It takes me longer because I read more carefully.’ Isn’t careful reading what academe was designed to promote?”
Baron’s prime personal focus is the decline in in‐depth digital‐reading of the humanities, where readings “tend to be lengthy, intellectually weighty or both.
“The challenge of digital reading for the humanities is that screens — particularly those on devices with Internet connections — undermine our encounters with meaty texts. These devices weren’t designed for focused concentration, reading slowly, pausing to argue virtually with the author, or rereading.
“Rather, they are information and communication machines, best used for searching and skimming — not scrutinizing.”
Think about that for a few moments: “not scrutinizing.” In other words, not examining what’s being communicated and not understanding how flimsy digital reading is.
Naomi Baron anxiously turns to what must be done if reading is to be “real.”
“Teachers and scholars must look beyond today’s (fashionable, speedy) career‐mindedness in talking about challenges to the humanities.”
And, I’d strongly add, talking about challenges to the Constitution and to educating individuals apart from collective standardized tests that negate personal scrutiny.
“We need,” she emphasizes, “to think more carefully about students’ mounting rejection of long‐form reading, now intensified by digital technologies that further complicate our struggle to engage students in serious text‐based inquiry.”
As for me, I continue to cherish physical books I can hold — that I delight in writing in, arguing with the authors and rereading as I learn more about the subjects elsewhere.
I have friends who are proud of their Kindles so full of e‑books. How intimately do they know each of them?
From the time I was a kid, certain printed books became part of me. And I still dig daily into newspapers — yes, newspapers — with a pen, underlining surprises that challenge me and noting the names of the unfamiliar reporters so I can check their believability.
I don’t dig skimming through life.