Does the Web Undermine Reading?

In a recent article by Naomi Alderman in The Guardian (UK) the author writes on “How the web is undermining reading.” In the article Ms Alderman writes:

Reading has been on the decline for the past half-century – largely, it seems, because television has replaced reading in our leisure time. I love television: even with the slew of boring reality shows currently broadcast, TV still offers some very enriching cultural experiences. But the loss of reading – that is, not purely literacy but reading for pleasure – could have wide cultural implications. Reading brings with it a host of other skills and benefits, the loss of which would leave our society poorer, including the ability to absorb information quickly, to think through complex problems or to compare points of view.

And it’s not just television that poses a threat to reading, it’s the internet too. Of course, using the internet certainly demands literacy. But reading on the internet isn’t the same as reading a book. Recent studies have indicated that online reading tends to break down in the face of “texts that require steady focus and linear attention”. University teacher friends have told me that some of their freshers have started to write in a similar fashion to the way we apparently read online. All the right keywords are in the right paragraphs, but the sentences don’t follow on coherently from each other. Their essays are meant to be skimmed, not read.”

Ms Alderman’s argument reminds me of the research of a friend of mine back during my pursuit of My First Worthless Masters Degree. He was a PhD student studying American musical culture and had discovered that throughout recorded American history, the older generation decried the music of the younger generation, blaming it for the general moral decline of the culture and all of the social evils of the world. So, just as his parents had decried his heavy metal music, his grandparent’s had decried his parent’s rock ‘n’ roll music. (And his great-grand parents had decried their children’s interest in that wicked jazz and big band music, etc.)

During my pursuit of My Second Worthless Masters Degree I took a class that dealt with Children and Library usage. Studies were showing, back in those pre-internet-in-every-house days, that children were reading less and less. Books seemed ‘too great a commitment’ for many kids but magazines and comic books, with their shorter stories and more images, were something kids were attracted to. The theory of the day was
“As long as they’re reading something, it’s a positive thing.” The idea was to make reading a habit, one that could grow and expand over time as tastes changed and new interests were discovered.

And if some people chose to stick to comic books and magazines, so be it. At least they were reading and keeping their minds open to new ideas.

Now, I may not be a big fan of rap music, but I don’t believe it’s the cause of all the social evils of the world. I also don’t believe that kids who try to use Instant Messaging (IM) abbreviations and Emoticons in written classroom work spells out cause of the moral decline of our civilization. After all, we’ve managed to survive fairly well as a society and a civilization even after we stopped listening exclusively to classical music and ceased using the Queen’s English.

To that end I also don’t feel that reading online will bring lessen our intelligence to the point where written communication is impossible and we all end up grunting at one another instead of speaking. Online text display, be it on a computer monitor or through an e-book reader like the Amazon Kindle, is simply another way for people to access information.

More importantly, it’s a way for a new generation to access information.

I’ve tried the Kindle and, to be honest, it was okay but not something I would consider buying for myself. However, I don’t really think the Kindle was designed with me in mind. As someone in their late 40s I’m a pretty died-in-the-wool bound-volume book reader. I like the look and feel of a book, the sensation of turning pages and the whole tactile experience that goes along with my history of reading books. I don’t expect to change, either.

Younger generations, however, are growing up doing the majority of their reading in some form of digital output. To them, the idea of an e-book reader will make considerably more sense. It will fit in with their ideas of what a “book” can mean and what a book is. If it’s a PDF on a computer montior, if it’s a Kindle or other e-book file or if it’s a cell-phone formatted text file, all of those are fine.

In fact, they’re more than fine – they’re necessary. We’re simply in the midst of a cultural and technological evolution. And I’m confident that as long as there are things to read, future generations will continue to read, regardless of how exactly they choose to do so.

— tom

3 Comments

  1. There’s similar consternation on this side of the pond in a Chronicle Review article “Books Can’t Compete,” by Mark Bauerlein. (behind a subscription wall, sorry; if you’re on a college campus you might have access).

    For sky-is-falling hand-wringing of a different sort, see Robert Darnton’s analysis of the Google settlement with publishers the Feb 12 issue of the New York Review of Books, “Google and the Future of Books.”

    Much to consider. Maybe I’ll have to do a follow up post myself, eh? I hope others will chime in in the comments.

    It’s true that every adult generation thinks the younger one is ushering in moral or aesthetic degeneration of one sort or another. I’d like us to find a way for publishers to stick around. My livelihood depends on it! But that doesn’t mean I think book publishers should continue to do things the way we’ve done them for the past century.

  2. Tom, I responded to your comment at Omnibus. I just wanted to add that as someone who occasionally indulges in “it’s completely impractical, but I want to go back to school for a degree in history” moments, I was absolutely charmed by your name for the degree!

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