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Reading Screens vs. Reading Paper: New Literacies? (December 2014): Histories

By James K Bracken


Discussion of the topic of reading paper versus screens is normally relegated to afterwords in the history of reading’s massive international literature.  Steven R. Fischer’s A History of Reading, however, is an excellent example of a comprehensive history that tries to integrate references to reading paper versus screens.  Despite a typical emphasis on books, readers, and the whats of reading, mostly in the West, Fischer also tries to distinguish different practices of reading.  One of his conclusions is that readable texts are everywhere.  How individuals read such diversity, Fischer continues, is determined situationally, with readers employing different reading practices.  Ultimately, Fischer says, “There is no such thing as ‘a reading,’” but an infinitely expanding variety of “consciously or unconsciously” selected reading practices dependent on individual differences in knowledge and skills, purpose and need, mood, and more, all of which are “constantly being altered and adapted.”  New information technologies have only increased reading’s complexity and individuality while also making it more ubiquitous.  While broadly looking to reading’s evolution, including the continuing development of writing technology through such inventions as “visual language” (the pictographic vocabulary now used on restroom doors, for example), Fischer does not foresee the displacement of either writing or reading.

Mostly focusing on what was read in the Western world up to the present, Martyn Lyons’s A History of Reading and Writing also discusses kinds of reading practices.  Lyons’s final chapter, “Readers and Writers in the Digital Age,” gives examples that show the paper roots of digital textual fluidity and hyper reading.  Of particular interest to Lyons is digitization’s impact on global literacy, a concern also shared in his more recent Books: A Living History.

John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid’s The Social Life of Information should be considered general historical background to reading paper versus screens.  In particular, Brown and Duguid point out the importance of context in reading.  Brown and Duguid liken paper and screens to ships and airplanes in that both carry information.  Paper and screen texts may differ in how each carries a message, but key to both is delivering information, a process in which, Brown and Duguid conclude, the reader also has a role. Shaped by social experiences in reading paper versus screens, individual readers ultimately approach texts differently.

Reading is everywhere in Asa Briggs and Peter Burke’s A Social History of the Media but without being a central focus.  As Briggs and Burke point out, reading is mostly taken for granted and certainly no longer the only game in town.  Briggs and Burke usefully distinguish types of reading practices, making these distinctions regardless of textual format and noting that reading practices shift alternately according to the reader’s needs.

Among important historical essay collections, Literacy and Historical Development, edited by Harvey J. Graff, collects contributed essays that cover the last millennium of reading in the West.  Graff’s introduction notes the tension between print and electronic literacies.  The collection’s single contribution addressing the topic, however, is Anne Haas Dyson’s previously published article, “’Welcome to the Jam’:  Popular Culture, School Literacy, and the Making of Childhoods,” which reports on research showing the positive relationship of children’s literacy development and exposure to popular media.  Dyson’s conclusion builds on her earlier The Brothers and Sisters Learn to Write.

Cultural History of Reading, edited by Gabrielle Watling and Sara E. Quay, contains in two volumes contributed essays on what books have been read up to the present.  Pointing to different kinds of messages on different kinds of devices, Elizabeth Spies in “Reading in the Twenty-First Century: 2000-2007” says that how Americans are now reading reflects technological changes.  Spies’s assertion that Americans have become “trained readers” of electronic texts, however, really needs to stand on a definition of what she exactly means by reading.  She does not distinguish different reading practices.  Although indirectly connecting electronic reading with increased literacy, Spies concludes that the question of the equivalence of reading screens versus paper still remains subject to debate.

Guglielmo Cavallo and Roger Chartier’s A History of Reading in the West is a collection of contributed essays on reading from classical to present times.  A final chapter, Armando Petrucci’s “Reading to Read: A Future for Reading,” notes that cultural reading in the West has given way to consuming; he looks to Japan as a counter example where, he says, print and digital reading are thriving.

The History of Reading, edited by Shafquat Towheed, Rosalind Crone, and Katie Halsey, collects contributed historical essays emphasizing what was read and who was reading it.  Volume 3 contains two essays on “Reading in the Digital Age,” about Filipino blog readership and the “materiality” of digital texts via Web browsers.

Among histories of reading in the United States, Deborah Brandt’s Literacy in American Lives reports on “how ordinary people learned to read and write” in twentieth-century America, focusing particularly on the economic and material influences on literacy.  Brandt makes the important point that changes in reading practices related to technological changes are generational.  Youth introduced early to screen reading, she concludes, will read paper versus screens differently from older people brought up on paper.  Brandt’s more recent Literacy and Learning is a selection of her previously published and unpublished works that emphasize literacy’s consistent importance to American society.  In “How Writing Is Remaking Reading,” Brandt considers how different forms of writing in the workplace now impact mass literacy.  Here she is talking about e-mail and web writing.  Brandt sees that today’s de facto writing teachers, whom she calls “the stewards of a new mass literacy,” increasingly resemble Google’s entrepreneurs, administrators, and advertisers.  Brandt sounds a lot like the reading teachers who identify children’s needs for authentic reading experiences without reference to format.

Edward E. Gordon and Elaine H. Gordon’s Literacy in America takes the opposite position.  Their final chapter, “Literacy for Everyone?” emphasizes the persistent competitive need for increased literacy in the twentieth-century American workplace, mostly to meet the demands of workplace computerization.  They do not, however, view computers as part of the problem’s solution but as the problem itself.  The Gordons indict increased computer use as putting “basic reading, writing, and calculating skills at greater risk.”

Gender and literacy in the United States are examined in Jane Greer’s Girls and Literacy in America, an historical anthology of women’s writing that includes e-mail and Internet diary entries as representative of literacy practices at the start of the twenty-first-century.

Mary Jo Fresch’s edited collection of contributed essays, An Essential History of Current Reading Practices, views the history of reading from the perspective of education.  Maureen McLaughlin’s chapter, “Reading Comprehension: An Evolution of Theory, Research, and Practice,” looks at comprehension as it is redefined by what is now regarded as a text—”trade books, informational articles, textbooks, hypertext, song lyrics, movies, television shows,  everyday life situations, and more.”  McLaughlin concludes that new textual formats require new and multiple literacies.

Works Cited