Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World

Digital reading, via such electronic reading devices as the Nook, the Kindle, and the recently departed Sony Reader, has been around long enough now that its side-effects are starting to be measured and discussed.  The root question regarding digital reading explored by Naomi S. Baron in Words Onscreen is one of whether or not “digital reading is reshaping our very understanding of what it means to read.”  Readers of Words Onscreen, if they had not already reached that conclusion before beginning the book, are likely to come away from a reading of it with a resounding “yes” in answer to the author’s question.

Few would argue that reading a book on a Kindle provides the same experience as reading that same book in its physical form.  Each format has its own set of distinct characteristics, advantages, and disadvantages and, largely depending on personal preferences, each format attracts strong advocates – and equally strong critics.  Naomi Baron, by exploring those advantages, disadvantages, and related characteristics in detail, explains why that is and why it is unlikely to change.  If not always surprising, what Baron learns in her study of digital reading (and digital readers) is always thought provoking enough to steer the reader toward self-examination of his own feelings about the electronic reading process and environment. 

Naomi S. Baron
Baron begins with the premise that digital reading is suitable for shorter pieces of light content, the kind of thing the reader neither intends to analyze nor to reread.  At the same time, she states that digital reading is not at all suited for reading most long works or works of any length that require “serious thought” on the part of the reader.  Does this mean that, as the prevalence of digital reading continues to increase, certain types of reading will be abandoned by even the most serious of readers?  Baron, in her chapter detailing the ever-increasing adoption of digital textbooks by American colleges, argues that this might just be the case.  And that shift in focus and ability to deeply study a text, she argues, will have detrimental effects on all of our futures.

Words Onscreen explores these and many other issues related to America, Canada, and Britain’s eager (although the pace has slowed in recent months) adoption of digital reading.   Interestingly, for a variety of reasons, some of which are financial and some cultural, the rest of the world has not moved toward digital reading nearly as enthusiastically as have these three countries.   Even more interesting, because it seems to defy common sense, is the discovery that much of the resistance toward digital reading comes from readers in their twenties and younger.  One would have expected such resistance to come almost exclusively from older, more tradition-oriented, readers.  That this is not the case, however, is only one of the surprises to be found in Words Onscreen. 


Side Note:  I read Words Onscreen in digital form and, as a result, while reading it I experienced firsthand some of what Baron describes in the book.  I have found, however, that as I gain experience in reading e-books, I am beginning to overcome some of the limitations inherent to digital reading.

5 comments:

  1. Actually, I know several readers, including my eighty year old mother, who prefer "digital reading" because they can change the size of the print so easily. This one advantage outweighs all disadvantages for older readers whose eyesight is deteriorating. My mother would not be able to rad much at all without her Kindle.

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    1. Totally agree with you on that score, Sherry. As one's eyesight becomes worse and worse, the option of being able to quickly expand print size is a wonderful thing. That's one of the things that first attracted me to e-readers myself. And that partially explains why there is more resistance toward switching over to e-reading from young readers than there is from those thirty and up...although, the resistance of younger readers still surprises me because of their natural affinity for anything involving a "screen."

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  2. Sounds like a fairly balanced book which is sometimes hard to come by on this topic. I do disagree that long thinky books aren't suitable for digital. I've read many a classic on my ereader and a few nonfiction books I've borrowed from the library. I do find books with complex styles impossible to read on an ereader, ones I want to mark up and be able to flip back and forth to make connections. I never would have gotten through Joyce's Ulysses as an ebook, but Dickens or Hardy or even Henry James, no problem.

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    1. As much as it surprises me to say it, I've found that the more that I read via an e-reader, the more complicated books I can read. My comprehension level is increasing at the same pace that my need to re-read sections of books is decreasing. I do miss being able to place stickies to mark my point or to write in the book's margins when I want to. Not sure I'll ever get comfortable with notes and highlighting for electronic books because it's too hard to find the notes I'm looking for later. Much easier when just flipping through a physical book. Part of that is the mental picture I take of the note before moving on. I know pretty much what part of the book to go to and what the note looks like before I start the search.

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    2. Exactly! We cannot create mental maps of ebooks like we can for print books and sometimes that makes a huge difference. I thought being able to do searches in ebooks would be great but I find that it really isn't all that useful.

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