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