The Moving Finger…Blinks, and Having Blinked, Blinks On

At the end of February, amid the snow and the false alarms for snow and ice in the Palmetto State came the following headline: “Why Digital Natives Prefer Reading in Print—And Yes You Read that Right!”. No, it didn’t come from the pen of this author (though it could have) nor did it come from any number of those whom some wish to brand as Luddites: Nicholas Carr, Mark Bauerlein, or Sven Birkerts. Rather it came from Maryland reporter Michael S. Rosenwald and The Washington Post. The piece is eye-catching if for no other reason than it isn’t from the usual suspects!

What Rosenwald discovered is precisely what Carr or Birkets or Bauerlien or your faithful columnist has been saying for at least a decade: yes, online reading occurs, and many digital natives use if for a variety of reasons. But no one, including them, prefers online reading when trying to comprehend a difficult text.

It is as if Rosenwald is reading over Carr or Bauerlien’s shoulder. The students he interviews do not like online reading because it is distracting. They find online reading difficult because when they read an online text, 90% of the time they are also doing something else: checking email, checking in at a social network, or even playing a game. Rosenwald opens with a young man, 20, who simply prefers reading text because of the smell, the feel and even the silence of the text: it isn’t making sounds, ringing bells, or offering a rabbit hole in which to get lost, literally or figuratively. Further, online readers tend to skim, cannot fully comprehend what they are reading, and find that their minds really wander all over the place. Some even complain that the light in their eyes rather than over their shoulders is problematic.

Some of those interviewed said they would not even attempt a difficult text in electronic form. And who can blame them? Most anyone can scan a newspaper or even take on a Harry Potter book. But Tocqueville? Plato? Joyce? It simply cannot be done. Joyce underscores the print versus online problem in high relief. Perhaps no other author lends himself well to the online format of hyperlink hype than Joyce because he requires so much elaboration. “Met him pike hoses” isn’t going to resonate with many that Joyce is word-playing with metempsychosis. But readers find that even such quellenforschung is also better done in print than a myriad of distracting hyperlinks.

Of course, it isn’t that digital natives or anyone else refuse to read online. Many love the ability to define words (though they likely forget them immediately), or to do quick keyword searches. Some, though I admit to reading between the lines, also prefer being able to do searches in books they haven’t read for materials they may need for a paper. Science materials, too, tend to be online favorites.

So, what are we to make of all this? As I have written elsewhere, it’s part of the transition. In no way do I believe that this spells the end of online materials. Publishers, who in a print world, enjoyed Sardanapalian benefits, are trying to recapture those cash cows in bits and bytes but with little success. It isn’t so easy, but they’re discovering it is much cheaper to print an electronic book while dropping the price only marginally. Like online courses at war with classroom ones, online books are going to be cheaper and provide a greater return on investment. That ROI does not necessarily include what students are investing in, however. If eBook reading increased 200%, it would still have a way to go before it caught up with print reading if measured in terms of value received and retained.

What this means for libraries is obvious, isn’t it? We still have to collect and support both for the time being, in the same way that we have for years supported microfilm and bound periodical volumes. Microform reading only caught on when there was no other choice. I would find it surprising if eBooks end up in the same dustbin. Microform-reading was never easier, better or more convenient. Nothing about it enticed the reader, and much dissuaded even the diligent. Its only attraction was a pedestrian one: it saved spaced while still providing access, even if a difficult one. EBooks have already shown their value in the benefits mentioned above, but also in leisure reading. None of us really likes lugging suitcases of print books with us on vacation (my long-suffering wife will argue that she knows at least one person who does). Having the ability to take hundreds of etexts appeals to those of us with eyes larger than our brains.

But when it comes to scholarship that must be recalled and remembered, few of us will choose the electronic text over its printed counterpart. I believe this to be more a facility of evolution and practice rather than something inherently hard-wired in us. Unless or until we can rewire our brains and–for better or for worse, online reading is doing that—we will have to read both formats, depending on the subject matter and/or reason for reading.

I haven’t had time to sift through the new literacy report so I cannot speak to how well or to what extent the issue of online reading contributes to the strength or weakness of literacy. If the students in the Rosenwald story are right, and if my own research in this subject matter is at all correct, it may well unravel many of the gains we have made in literacy in recent decades. Poor readers, especially, will have a much tougher time going forward if they must learn to read digitally first. If that continues, we will see future generations underperforming when compared with their past peers.

And so, the print versus online debate continues in its ironies, whether you read this article first in print or online.

[A version of this piece appears in Against the Grain.]

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