You all probably know by now that I am fascinated by the print versus digital book debate. I don’t know why. Most of the time I would really like to stop reading yet one more article about how ebooks and the internet are ruining our ability to read. But I can’t help myself. It’s like when someone tells you “don’t look” and you immediately turn around to look. So when I saw an email news update from The Chronicle of Higher Education today with a headline: How E-Reading Threatens the Humanities, I absolutely had to click through.
The piece, written by a professor of linguistics who has a book coming out later this year on reading in a digital world, is gloomy and bemoans the loss of concentration that ebooks have inflicted upon us, particularly college students. There is nothing new to glean from her essay or, from the sound of it, the large survey she did of U.S., German and Japanese university students.
Students are distracted and reading on a screen encourages distraction. Students themselves said they prefer reading print books because they concentrate better. The author worries about ereading and the humanities because the humanities is built around sustained, deep reading of often lengthy work. But with professors and libraries foisting digital texts on students and students themselves spending so much time in front of a screen anyway, their ability to read deeply is eroding fast.
Imagine wrestling with Finnegan’s Wake while simultaneously juggling Facebook and booking a vacation flight.
Now I had to laugh at that. Considering the reputation Finnegan’s Wake has for being a nearly impossible book to read, I thought, well hey, maybe trying to read it while multitasking could actually work. A distracted brain might be able to make more sense of it than one directing all its focused attention at it. It would be like those posters where in order to see the picture you have to unfocus your eyes, turn around in circles, clap you hands three times and stand on one foot. I’ve never been able to see the picture, in fact I am almost convinced there is no picture to see and those who claim to see one are only saying they do because they don’t want to be that person. Kind of like the Emperor’s New Clothes Syndrome.
But what really made me laugh in a “it’s not supposed to be funny but it is” kind of way is the response from one of the students surveyed to the questions “What is the one thing you like least about reading in print?” Of course it had to be an American student who wrote:
It takes me longer because I read more carefully.
Towards the beginning of the essay the author mentions that a 2011 study of college freshmen found that 86% say their top reason for attending college is so they can get a better job.
Now, couldn’t it be true that the student who doesn’t like to read print because it takes longer is frustrated because s/he does not see how reading Paradise Lost will help with getting a good job? Perhaps that student thinks it is more important to spend time concentrating on the reading for a class in business or working on the coding assignment for a computer science class? Isn’t it possible that fewer students are pursuing degrees in the humanities not because ereading has ruined their ability for deep reading but because those who work in the humanities aren’t very good at making a case for how a degree in English literature will get you a good paying job?
I’m not saying that the internet and ebooks has had no effect on how we read. What I’m suggesting is that there is probably more going on; that the threat to the humanities is not ebooks but a bunch of things with ebooks being at the bottom of the list of what to worry about. What do you think?