Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Changing Views on Reading

Reading vs. digital literacy. The debate continues as Christine Rosen presents an interesting perspective regarding the future of reading. Here is an excerpt.

We have already taken the first steps on our journey to a new form of literacy—“digital literacy.” The fact that we must now distinguish among different types of literacy hints at how far we have moved away from traditional notions of reading. The screen mediates everything from our most private communications to our enjoyment of writing, drama, and games. It is the busiest port of entry for popular culture and requires navigation skills different from those that helped us master print literacy.

Enthusiasts and self-appointed experts assure us that this new digital literacy represents an advance for mankind; the book is evolving, progressing, improving, they argue, and every improvement demands an uneasy period of adjustment. Sophisticated forms of collaborative “information foraging” will replace solitary deep reading; the connected screen will replace the disconnected book. Perhaps, eons from now, our love affair with the printed word will be remembered as but a brief episode in our cultural maturation, and the book as a once-beloved technology we’ve outgrown.

My favorite quote, and the one I'm thinking quite a bit about, actually comes from historian David Bell.

As he tried to train himself to screen-read—and mastering such reading does require new skills—Bell made an important observation, one often overlooked in the debate over digital texts: the computer screen was not intended to replace the book. Screen reading allows you to read in a “strategic, targeted manner,” searching for particular pieces of information, he notes. And although this style of reading is admittedly empowering, Bell cautions, “You are the master, not some dead author. And that is precisely where the greatest dangers lie, because when reading, you should not be the master”; you should be the student. “Surrendering to the organizing logic of a book is, after all, the way one learns,” he observes.
Read the entire article, entitled People of the Screen. Once you do, please come back so we can discuss.


  1. What a great article! I must admit as I as reading it I started wondering if I was feeling defensive on behalf of novelists? And then I decided that it didn't matter because the threat is real.

    I really, really like the Bell quote you cited. I like the idea of "surrendering" as part of the experience.

  2. That is quite the article. Brings up a lot of good points about literacy, books and technology. There is part of me that wants to scream, NOOoooo, whenever anyone suggests that we will replace printed books with digital books. I have such a strong connection to the printed word, the smell of the paper, the ability to write in my books. I am not sure I could ever give it up nor do I think I should.

    One of my concerns about digitizing literacy is how it would affect different classes and countries. Meaning how would this affect people who are already illiterate. Would there be a an even greater gap between the haves and the have nots than the one that already exists. Digital books at least requires some money to access this - at least at this point.

    Thanks for the link!

  3. I hate to sound negative (because I quite enjoy your blog!) but I can't say I cared for this article. The binary between book readers and digital readers seems suspect, if not entirely false. No one would disagree that parents ought to read to their children. But the larger question is never answered: why do we value reading? What do we want our children to gain? And how is that value excluded from digital scholarship - is it because some kids only use YouTube, or because adults are intimidated by the amount of free content available, or because we have nostalgia for reading every word of every newspaper every day (and reading only the first paragraph online is somehow admitting to ourselves that we don't have time anymore)?

    The "addiction" that is popular in articles like this one has been debunked:

    And people used to condemn pleasure reading for taking one into a sort of trance. Now we praise pleasure reading, and condemn this new kind of pleasure reading as well as its form. What is the value of this argument? It doesn't aid us as we evaluate and redefine what we want from reading (so we can begin to answer questions about digital reading). I'm not saying online reading is better - I think we won't be able to understand much about it unless we open our minds to investigating its potential. Articles like this feel too reactionary to be helpful.

    And beyond that, I dislike Rosen's take upon the upper versus lower class. Why should reading only be available to those who can afford it? Why shouldn't we encourage others to post high-quality content online for free?

    There are a lot of answers to that question - publishers and newspapers are struggling to figure out how they'll make money off this new model - but I don't think it's hurting our literacy rate, and I think it's too easy to declare reading online a lesser form of literacy.

    (Whew! Again, this blog is simply marvelous, and I appreciate you opening this topic up to discussion - even if you get strongly-worded responses like mine.)

  4. Kay - Thanks for this very reasonable response. I agree that too often people see this as a dichotomy. However, I am persuaded by the work of the folks at Kansas State when I think about what students are reading. In their video A Vision of Students Today, there are data like these:
    I will read 8 books this year
    2300 web pages and 1281 FaceBook profiles

    I will write 42 pages for class this semester
    and over 500 pages of e-mail

    This is a VERY different kind of reading that has very different results than reading Shakespeare, Maya Angelou, or John Feinstein.

    Are we snobbish about online reading? I suppose we are. I think that some of the nonfiction I read online is just as good (accurate) as what I find in the library. It's quick and it's easy to access. I don't have a problem with the Kindle or audiobooks. I think we need to diversify the way we deliver stories, but I do believe that we still need bound books to hold in our hands and curl up with.