Thursday, January 21, 2016

Reading in a screen-based culture

Much is written, with alarm, about the death of the book, the bookstore, and serious reading in general as the result of digital books and our screen-based culture.  I have participated in the hand wringing since change is always challenging.

If serious reading were doomed, I would not have published my novel on Kindle nor would my wife, Lynn Schiffhorst, have used the same e-book format for her many stories.  There are many advantages to online reading, especially the immediate networking available as one reader shares his or her views with many others, joins a discussion group, or links to a website. Writers and readers become part of a new global community, with access to a vast array of titles available via the Internet.

Yet, as Michael Dirda wisely observes in a valuable article last month (in the journal Humanities), the new technology poses some serious problems. The kind of reading we do online encourages skimming rather than the deep immersion associated with holding a printed book in the hand.  For most people I know, nothing beats the traditional printed book: it is always there, not subject to the fluctuations associated with many online publications. Who is to say, Dirda asks, if some censor will alter the texts of certain classics to make them politically correct? 

Factual errors are commonplace in online reading and have to be double-checked against the more stable medium of the printed work. Beyond that, book lovers like Dirda and me value printed books because of their reassuring presence in our lives. They allow for browsing (in libraries, in bookstores) that leads us to find related books or ones whose covers invite investigation. This is hard to replicate online. "Human beings are tactile creatures," Dirda writes, "and we find ourselves drawn to things we can touch and handle."

He also worries about the way online reading, which I see as a valuable adjunct to print reading, involves an excessive concern with the present and its demands for conformity and political correctness, with the past too often viewed as irrelevant.  In other words, the screen-based culture is youth-oriented in a way that will never satisfy those of us beyond the age of forty who seek an engagement with more than the present culture.

And this returns me to the main concern, the loss with online texts of what has been called the spirituality of reading: the ability we have with a printed novel in our lap to enter worlds and cultures other than our own, to savor the characters and language in a well-crafted story and lose ourselves there. I hope this kind of interiority is possible for some readers on Kindle and similar media; I have found some short pieces online that encourage deep reflection, yet these websites are part of an electronic world filled with meaningless Internet chatter on a multiplicity of distracting, constantly changing sites. It is hard to pay real attention to such reading.

In short, there is nothing like a traditional book: its advantages continue to outweigh the benefits of the newer technology.

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