The author of Words Onscreen - the Fate of Reading in a Digital World, Naomi S. Baron is not only a professor of linguistics at the American University in Washington, DC, she is also an engaging and entertaining writer. This sweeping survey of the mechanics of and attitudes to reading on screen is a treasure trove of gems about how our brains respond to text printed on paper and text displayed on screens. What are the differences, and what do readers feel to be the differences between the two mediums? This book offers us some intriguing answers. For Maryanne Wolf the author of Reader, Come Home and Proust and the Squid (both reviewed on this site), this book “includes and then goes beyond the works before it, including my own. It deserves our ‘deepest reading’ and re-reading in either, or perhaps, both mediums!”
Writing may have been invented six thousand years ago, but only elites practised reading for most of that time. The invention of the printing press just under six hundred years ago lit a slow-burn fuse that eventually boosted reader numbers and, as education became a mass provision, those numbers ballooned. Whereas perhaps 12% of the world (aged 15 and above) could read and write in the early 19th century, nowadays that percentage applies to those yet to accomplish the challenge. Us readers are everywhere. Yet the science of reading is a relatively new applied science, although it has filled shelves with books and scholarly articles since the mid-twentieth century. The science of learning to read may not be entirely settled, but much is known about how fluent readers actually go about doing it.
Text is everywhere. Once electronic devices came to be adopted by nearly all of us, we started to consume it on screens as well as on paper. Understanding what this means for us is what Words Onscreen is about. To this applied science, a relatively new twist has been given. This book helps us appreciate the issues and the details.
First, let’s dispatch a potential criticism of what follows. The path to adoption of new technology often has a familiar pattern. Novel systems are often met first with complacency, which can then give way to ridicule. Criticism follows. This might be brewed in a froth of commercial competitiveness (Bill Gates’ 1995 view that the internet was a novelty that would make way for something better is one example) or be plainly cultural, as when Socrates judged the written word to be inferior to the spoken word in every way. For him, writing’s muteness doomed the dialogic process. (Maryanne Wolf has this interplay at the heart of her Proust and the Squid.) Yet when acceptance and widespread adoption follow - as has undoubtedly happened with computers, tablets and smartphones - the preceding kerfuffle is oft forgotten. Words Onscreen, let’s say, is not fighting some sort of rear-guard action. The writer embraces all these technologies, as do I. There is something much subtler going on, and the details of this are being uncovered in the research laboratories of interested linguistics and psychologists.
This book’s title hints at the possible direction of the author’s argument. Is reading in a digital world suffering some sort of fate? To approach an answer to that, we don’t need to get too involved in distinguishing between different types of reading. While our ability to read onscreen timetables, recipes and other functional texts may persist intact, screens may impact our ability to read reflectively and discriminately in a way that paper doesn’t. The focus here is on comprehension, retention of detail and reading critically. In the main, the author is comparing the reading of books with the reading of e-books on e-readers such as Kindle and Kobo.
We live in a world of fleeting stimuli, where text flashes before us only fleetingly, before it is replaced with a screen re-fresh or a hyperlink to something else. The experience is transitory and potentially throw-away, as we race to keep abreast of the daily data fire hose, made worse by much of what we see on our screens being interlaced with content that we didn’t choose to see (adverts, promotions, sidebars and general cruft). More than half of the links we share outside e-readers, we’ve apparently never clicked on. Of those that we have read, most of us have not finished them to the end. Our “Look at this!” reactions are knee-jerk ones. As we read online, for most of us our eyes are tracing an “F” pattern, starting top-left but not fully absorbing text that appears lower down the page. Perhaps twenty percent of readers don’t reach ‘below the fold’. Before it was acquired by Google, the Oyster library service in the USA judged that an e-book had been read if readers had completed 10 percent of a book. Do screens promote superficial reading behaviour, whether online or with an e-book or, at least, hinder deeper reading?
Two constituencies converge in this volume, the scientists who measure what readers do in their laboratories, and the readers themselves. The science is reporting that “screen culture is shortening our attention span, making us more literal-minded, and reducing opportunities to engage with abstract content”. As reported (this website) by Maryanne Wolf, and in this volume by Naomi Baron, Anne Mangen “suggests that screen reading encourages skimming, skipping and browsing, with the measured result that sequencing of events and memory for detail are the first casualties of digital reading”. Another, Katherine Hayles, considers a style of reading that appears to have evolved from our contact with the internet, hyper reading, defined as:
a strategic response to an information-intensive environment, aiming to conserve attention by quickly identifying relevant information, so that only relatively few portions of a given text are actually read. (Naomi S. Baron, Words Onscreen - the Fate of Reading in a Digital World, p.166)
The other constituency is readers ourselves. Which reading medium do we tend to prefer? In one study, students themselves preferred reading print books if they were “going to tackle substantial undertakings”.
Online materials were fine for grabbing specific pieces of information but not for in-depth study that required comparing across sources and arguments. Print gave a sense of the whole, while online counterparts tended to be read in a more fragmented way. (Naomi S. Baron, Words Onscreen - the Fate of Reading in a Digital World, p.152)
Baron, rightly, reminds us that “anyone is capable of lingering over eText and skimming print”, but generalises that with print we can also enjoy chance encounters, have a tangible sense of ownership, be offered a sensory experience, produce marginalia and slow down to deeper understand and reflect. “Screens hasten us along. Print invites us to linger”, she offers. Repeated studies suggest that people prefer to read lengthier and more complex texts, especially text books and classic novels, in print. This preference shows up for students reading for study and for pleasure, for parents of young children, for hospital clinicians, for students and consumers alike, in America, in Germany and in Japan.
There might also be implications for our culture. Higher education is predicated on the need to take time with reading at length, with ‘deep reading’ and reflection. Whereas hyper reading may be essential for air traffic control and currency trading, “concentrated reading takes concentrated work”. Can our culture support the development of both types of reading to the extent required?
What isn’t discussed here is whether reading onscreen, which is not the preferred medium, which has been shown to be more slap-dash, make readers more susceptible to misinformation, I wonder? As online social media seem to be an acknowledged Petri dish of misinformation and disinformation (the former accidental, the latter deliberate), is it inevitably harder for readers in that context to be sufficiently discriminating? This last imponderable will no doubt be addressed in future research. E-readers are not going to disappear anytime soon.
This volume is also replete with fascinating information about readers and reading. Baron ensures that there’s never a dull moment in what might otherwise be a dry review of the field. Who knew, for example, what the weight of an e-book might be? One researcher she quotes posits that “a 4Gb e-reader filled with 3,500 books weighs a billionth of a billionth of a gram more than if it were empty - a difference that is approximately the same weight as a molecule of DNA”! Does even Shakespeare come across as a lightweight on e-readers? Surely not!
[Although this volume was published in 2015, it appears that attitudes to e-books have not changed much in the meantime. Another 2015 book on a related subject that is well worth reading is Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation - The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (reviewed on this site).]
- Paper Books vs eBooks Statistics, Trends and Facts  , a statistics-heavy article about the long-lived preference for printed books (over e-readers) in America - by a company that sells printer toner and ink - but well worth reading nevertheless!
- World literacy statistics (from Our World in Data).
[Words Onscreen - the Fate of Reading in a Digital World by Naomi S. Baron is available in the UK from Hive.co.uk.]