Thursday, July 15, 2010

Does The Internet Make Us Poorer Readers?

Apropos of this conversation, and the David Brooks column which it references, I'm pondering the question. Reflecting on my own intellectual habits and how they've developed over the past several years, I do note a change, at the very least. I've been an avid reader since elementary school, but when I was younger I was much more likely to get my daily dose of the printed word by spending an hour or two with my nose buried in one kind of written volume or another. In my pre-Internet childhood I plowed through novels, magazines, newspapers, and even my father's old, battered copy of the Encyclopedia Britannica at a prodigious rate, and even once the web came along when I was in high school, and started to really flourish when I hit college, I still did most of my reading this way.

As a result, I did spend a lot of time reading things that required large commitments of time and attention, something which I think has somewhat changed as of late. I read just as much as ever now, but I spend a much higher percentage of my time reading online than I did even five years ago, and I find that has biased me more towards shorter, less consuming forms of reading. I don't know that it's necessarily made me a poorer reader, however.

I do find that for me at least fiction and narrative non-fiction suffer in electronic form - I've tried reading novels, histories, and even short stories online, and have found the temptations and distractions of cyberspace antithetical to the kind of sustained concentration necessary to fully enjoy and profit from them. I find it harder to immerse myself in a world when I'm reading about it on a computer screen for whatever reason. The glare of the monitor starts to bother my eyes after awhile, and it's annoying to have to find my place again in a work that requires multiple sittings if I can't simply flip open to the page in which I've tucked my bookmark. I also find myself missing some of the most relaxing aspects of a lengthy read - the ability to lounge on my side or lie on my back while reading, to go to the kitchen to fix myself a cup of tea with book in hand, even to take a bathroom break without breaking the spell. For these reasons I persist in carrying old-fashioned dead tree reading with me when I go on vacation, and I still have a few bookshelves' worth of volumes around in even my current stripped-down, provisional living arrangement.

This is not so for news stories, expository essays, and other forms of short nonfiction, however. Blogs, electronic media, etc. have a vitality which greatly enhances the appeal and challenge of these sorts of writing; if I read a newspaper column opining on, say, the Affordable Patient Care Act, I'm done after a few paragraphs and regardless of whether I agree or not with the author's perspective have nowhere to go afterwards. Put the same column online, however, and it's likely to come with a comments section featuring numerous provocative responses (and a fair amount of drivel) offered up by other readers, as well as links to other perspectives on the issue, rebuttals, and all the rest. The internet, like a virtual, world-wide university seminar, creates an excellent forum for hashing out ideas with other people, and allows for a richer and more thought-provoking experience in engaging many sorts of intellectual propositions. In those respects, I think that it has the ability to make us better-informed and more engaged readers, not poorer ones.

Ultimately, it's my theory that this dichotomy between the experiences of short-form and long-term reading that explains why computers and the internet are slowly killing off newspapers and print magazines, but it seems unlikely that devices like the Kindle and the iPad will be the demise of print books. For a news article, or an encyclopedia article, a web page may well be a faster, cheaper, and more efficient way of delivering the same content than newsprint or a bound volume, but for a book-length piece of writing it seems unlikely that that will ever be the case. Perhaps rather than making us poorer or better readers, then, the Internet is making us more rounded ones.

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