Good Writing on Reading Digitally and its Consequences

I’m a bit behind on my PMLA reading, and I was reading the January 2013 (128.1) issue this morning, which includes an excellent suite of essays on “Reading in the Digital Age.” I’ve written here about these issues before, especially about my concern that we retain less and our brains get less exercise when we read digitally rather than in print, and the frightening long-term effects this will have on society. Thus it was nice to discover that such a prestigious journal is paying close attention to the subject. Here are some of the highlights:

My favorite article in the group is Naomi S. Baron’s “Redefining Reading: The Impact of Digital Communication Media,” which reports the results of several surveys she conducted measuring both students’ and the general population’s attitudes about reading digitally versus reading in print. I like the article because the survey shows that even students who have grown up with computers all of their lives realize that they prefer reading in print once they are asked to think about it. Respondents appreciate the physicality of reading books, even textbooks that they are planning on selling back to the bookstore at the end of the semester (which is another problem to discuss another time). They also say that they retain information much better when they are interacting with print texts, in part because they get distracted in electronic environments. The article also shows that more and more people conceive of reading as a search for specific bits of information rather than as an exploration fueled by intellectual curiousity. I admit that sometimes I am guilty of this in my research, going straight to a book’s index to find the passages that are relevant to my topic, but I also enjoy reading for pleasure rather than purpose, and I have grown intellectually just as much if not more via the former kind of reading as the latter. Baron’s essay is necessary reading for anyone interested in the life of the mind and how it’s evolving, and I am going to assign it to my students this autumn.

Michael Cobb’s intriguing article “A Little Like Reading: Preference, Facebook, and Overwhelmed Interpretations” examines what sort of reading act occurs when we “Like” something on Facebook. I am addicted to Facebook, and am glad to see that it continues to draw serious academic analysis. One of the most profound conference presentations I’ve ever heard was a presentation on Facebook as a form of autobiography at the 2010 MLA Convention. Seriously engaging with Facebook rather than simply dismissing it as a waste of time is essential because of its ubiquitousness, and Cobb’s essay is a superb example of this engagement.

Jim Collins’s essay “Reading, in a Digital Archive of One’s Own,” which is pro-digital reading, is a thought-provoking piece in part about how both sides of the debate are represented by unhelpful caricatures and how the debate problematically takes place as “an exercise in nostalgia, grounded in a discourse of inevitable loss” (212), and in part about how one’s digital playlist is a form of autobiography just like one’s library. Collins makes a good point about how those of us who are defenders of print media need to integrate the realities of digital reading into our viewpoint, though I don’t think he pays enough attention to the foreboding realities of digital reading described in Baron’s essay.

N. Katherine Hayles’s essay “Combining Close and Distant Reading: Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes and the Aesthetic of Bookishness” argues that many recent authors (she also mentions B.S. Johnson’s classic The Unfortunates) have expressed concern about the future of the book by creating books that play with books’ traditional physical form. She offers a helpful, data-ridden analysis of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes as an example of this trend.

Lisa Nakamura’s essay “‘Words with Friends'” Socially Networked Reading on Goodreads” is also quite good for many of the same reasons as Cobb’s. She examines Goodreads as an important source of data on contemporary reading habits, but also notes that is important to keep in mind that such seemingly-innocent social networking sites function because users consume their advertising. They are cogs of capitalism in disguise.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Good Writing on Reading Digitally and its Consequences

  1. I saw those articles in my first issue of the MLA publication. I agree about reading print/paper over electronic (though sometimes ebooks are just easier to carry) and can’t wait to read those essays.

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