The Fate of Reading in a Digital World

My house is filled with books. More than a decade ago, we did an inventory of our books and we had more than a thousand. Since that time I’ve earned a Master of Divinity and am well into a Doctor of Philosophy. The number of books has continued to mount. I have heaps more today than I did then.

Part of our family strategy in homechooling is to have a great number of good books on hand so that there are always new stories and explanations to explore. In part this is necessary because the closest local library is not particularly well stocked with good books for children. In part this is the result of a couple of bibliophiles wanting to pass along something good.

In any event, when I saw a review of Naomi Baron’s book Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital Age pop up in First Things, I was intrigued. I've been rather dismissive of the e-reader movement and was particularly interested to hear her analysis a decade or so into the online reading explosion.

Baron is a Professor of Linguistics at American University. She is also in charge of a center at that university that focuses on pedagogy. She is uniquely qualified to write this volume. In her introduction, Baron admits she will be going beyond the usual linguistic practice of describing the is into the helpful tasks of considering the ought. This willingness to make some judgments, albeit with grace, makes this book very valuable.

The question Baron picks up in the volume is whether “digital reading is reshaping our understanding of what it means to read.” (xii) She goes on to argue “that digital reading is fine for many short pieces or light content we don’t intend to analyze or reread.” (xii) Her conclusion is that digital reading is here to stay, but so is reading in print. Each has a niche in the publishing world and the academic world. Thus the future is a complementary coexistence rather than extinction of one or the other.

Baron begins with a state of the book address, where she lays out the history of the rise of the e-book and the shift in print publishing. She then provides a history of reading that will make a lover of reading swoon. This chapter is really worth the price of the book. In the third chapter she discusses the impact that e-reading is having on writing styles, where media are moving to punchier, shorter chunks. (This is why my blog is almost never longer than 800 words.) This is a chapter that is historiographic and, again, very enjoyable for one who loves reading.

In Chapter Four Baron explains the attraction to reading onscreen, for those that appreciate it. She is fair in presenting the strongest arguments for that form of reading. Still she notes that e-books and e-readers may not be as green as claimed, particularly since most people don’t simply dispose of their hard copy books, but often resell them, lend them, and pass them down. She also notes that one does not really own an e-book, but merely accesses its information. The more significant concern she notes is that retention in onscreen reading tends to be lower. Still, she find strengths of the medium and promotes them.

What comes of the discussion is that onscreen reading is more suitable for one-off reading. Though annotation methods are improving in e-books, they still lag significantly behind the marginalia of trusty paper copies. In Chapter Six, Baron discusses the phenomena of social reading, which began with the book club and has progressed to sharing quotes through Goodreads and other platforms. This sometimes helps people get through books, but it often keeps students from approaching texts as cleanly.

Baron dwells on one of the most significant downsides of e-books in her seventh chapter. This is the fact that people feel there is something lacking from the aesthetic experience of reading a book on a screen. It just isn't the same as reading a real book. It is the loss of the sensory aspect of reading that has some young people hooked on paper books. And then, there is the fact that a print book has no games or apps. There is no chance that an e-mail will pop up or Facebook will demand one’s attention in the background of a paper book. Studies continue to show that some of these real issues continue to make real books a better option for deep reading.

Despite its shortcomings for some uses, Baron concludes that onscreen reading is here to stay as a complement to reading on paper. Her case is compelling and winsomely argued.  The ability to get a vast number of resources online is extremely helpful for quick research. At the same time, the opportunities to annotate, spatially associate, and focus on a tangible object are essential for deep reading. Both forms of readings have a purpose and both are here to stay.

I enjoyed this book immensely. Not just because I agree with her conclusions, but because it was well written, well researched and accessible. If you are a bookish sort of person, then put this volume on your to-be-read list. But buy it in paper copy because it is worth reading deeply and well.

Note: A gratis copy of this book was provided by the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.