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

By James K Bracken

Critical Studies

Many critics, but not all, now understand reading paper versus screens as equivalent when they think that digital texts are read as if they were printed texts displayed on screens.  Here the emphasis is on the reading practice, not the format.  Critics in disagreement, on the other hand, occupy extremes. Some say that digital texts are not readable and simply dismiss them, while others argue that digital texts are in fact a new media species requiring new literacies different from reading.  This latter position is best articulated in David Reinking’s important study “Multimedia and Engaged Reading in a Digital World” in Ludo Verhoeven and Catherine Snow’s edited collection, Literacy and Motivation.  Reinking argues that electronic texts “as multimedia artifacts” may be more engaging to readers than texts printed on paper or as a printed variation on screens.

Studies of the science of reading offer substantial insights for appreciating the equivalence of reading paper versus screens.  Maryanne Wolf, in Proust and the Squid, points out that humans were designed to see and hear, not to read, and that the uses of writing and reading since their invention have physically transformed the human brain.  Wolf’s concluding questions are about how reading differently in a digital future will impact the brain’s functions.  Wolf asks if reading “on-screen, as opposed to in the pages of a book” threatens our children’s “learning the heart of the reading process: going beyond the text.”  Likewise, she questions the relationship of reading shallowly or reading shallow content with human cognitive development.  Wolf’s concern is that humans will grow differently in a negative way, losing the capacities that traditional reading and writing developed in the human brain.

A more challenging exploration of the science of reading is Stanislas Dehaene’s Reading in the Brain, which describes how the brain’s “uniquely human plasticity” gives it a “gift for putting thoughts together.”  Dehaene’s conclusion is that writing and reading are innate to the brain and that humans became literate through adaptation, not evolution.  Dehaene lays out particular evidence about the brain’s capabilities and limitations.  Noting that the number of brain cells dedicated to reading is finite and therefore unavailable for other purposes, Dehaene asks what the capacities are that reading makes the human brain lose and whether “our illiterate ancestors had visual skills that we have now lost.”  Dehaene also explains that humans most efficiently read linearly.  Dehaene suggests that computerized rapid sequential visual presentation (RSVP), in which text “is presented, word by word, at the precise point where gaze is focalized, thus avoiding the need for eye movements … represents the future of reading in a world where screens progressively replace paper.”  Such technology, Dehaene concludes, tests visual reading’s biological limits, “unless one is willing to skip words and thus run the risk of misunderstanding.”

Studies of literary reading also contribute important insights about differences in reading paper versus screens.  The classic apology for literary book reading is Sven Birkerts’s The Gutenberg Elegies, first published in 1994, whose 2006 paperback edition includes a new introduction and afterword.  Birkerts now asks us to recognize technology’s neutrality and all that it can help us accomplish.  At the same time, Birkerts still sees reading paper versus screens as a “struggle” between individual attention’s “atoms” and digital connectivity’s “bits.” His concerns are that new distractions pressure “the discipline” of reading’s elements, like attention, imagination, and reflection.  Alberto Manguel raises equally classic arguments in A Reader on Reading, a collection of his lectures, speeches, and previously published works.  Addressing why we read in his chapter “The End of Reading,”Manguel allows that a digital text can engage readers but not as well as printed text.  Texts in paper versus screens are equivalent but not interchangeable.

Michael Burke’s Literary Reading, Cognition and Emotion is a psycholinguistic study that focuses on the reading experience in English literature.  Without making distinctions between paper versus screens, Burke describes reading as text processing, or “cognitive appraisal”: a “linear process” in which a stimulus is perceived, then recognized, judged, or believed; the process ends in the production of an emotional experience.  That the process is biologically and culturally based, Burke contends, also makes it both individual and social.  Readers bring their assumptions to texts and reformulate them as needed, regardless of format.  Burke refers to digital books as challenging the print codex in the marketplace, but not compromising literary reading’s integrity.

Communicating in English, edited by Daniel Allington and Barbara Major, includes Caroline Tagg’s essay “Digital English,” highlighting that “People—as well as machines—shape digital communication.”  Tagg’s point is that technology does not change people without people participating in that change.  Likewise, Daniel Allington and Ann Hewings’ “Reading and Writing in English” discusses the individualized “diversity of literacy practices,” concluding that how one reads all depends on who, what, why, when, etc.

Nicholas Basbanes’s Every Book Its Reader is about what civilization’s readers owe to books, individually and collectively.  Basbanes argues for the importance of deep critical reading.  His final chapter looks forward with a description of the Lindisfarne Gospel’s digitization and what high-resolution digital images facilitate: scholars can now “pore over the ancient leaves without ever having to handle or touch them.”  Yes, the experiences of using the original analog manuscript and the digital surrogate are different.  What is the same, however, is the poring over, as Basbanes’ describes it, and deep reading.

Similarly paper-oriented, Anthony Grafton’s Worlds Made by Words reprints several essays by Grafton, including “Codex in Crisis: The Book Dematerializes,” originally published in The New Yorker and later expanded in his Codex in Crisis.  Grafton is an apologist for using books in traditional ways.  No one will disagree with his argument that a text’s format impacts use and meaning, nor that the Internet is creating new forms of writing.  But whether screens indicate a “new form of reading ... [with] self-plotted curves and swoops” in contrast to “the crutches of traditional plot and argument” is questionable based on what we know about the reading process and textual variations.

In How to Read a Novel John Sutherland dismisses digital texts for reading fiction, noting the significance of the paper book’s physicality.  Sutherland’s chapter “Every Other Thing Has Changed: Why Hasn’t the Book Changed?” compares reading fiction in paper books versus e-ink, iPods, and other screen technologies.  His conclusion is that “words pixel-created on a grey screen” are harder for the eyes to read than ink printed on paper.  E-texts, he says, are electronic scrolls with all of that format’s shortcomings.  When he asks “Where is the primary narrative located—on the page or on the screen?” Sutherland in fact distinguishes between reading a novel versus watching a film adaptation.  Sutherland’s point in this comparison, which can be extended to electronic texts, is that a work’s format shapes its message.  Recognizing that his paper preference is generational, Sutherland realistically enough proposes that the desert island hosting any future marooned novel reader would need “an endless supply of electricity for the iPod.”

Michael Dirda’s Book by Book is similarly dogmatic in distinguishing reading paper versus screens: children “should be immersed in a culture of the sentence, not the screen.”  Dirda’s conclusion is that digital technologies exercise “hand-eye coordination” more than cognitive skills.

Comments on the Internet’s relationship to reading are equally polemical.  Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows argues that “the world of the screen … is a very different place from the world of the page.”  Despite a concern that shallow use of the Internet risks abusing and negatively changing the brain’s capacity, Carr nonetheless sees the Internet’s potential to encourage deep thinking.  Listing books that he says can be read deeply on the Internet, Carr ultimately admits that how one reads paper versus screens makes the difference: “It’s possible to think deeply while surfing the Net, just as it is possible to think shallowly while reading a book, but it is not the type of thinking the technology encourages and rewards.”  Carr’s fears about the Internet are that by overloading our cognitive capacities, we risk learning nothing.  Stan Persky in Reading the 21st Century likewise notes digital devices’ capacity to deliver texts that offer a “sufficiently sustained reading experience,” provided that those devices are used with “willed attention.”

Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation indicts screen reading without any similar concession.  Central to Bauerlein’s argument is that reading in print is different and better than reading on computers.  In his chapter “The New Bibliophobes,” Bauerlein pits paper literacy against e-literacy.  However, while offering a clear assessment of screen reading versus book reading, Bauerlein neither considers individualized paper-reading practices nor comments on how people actually read paper books.

Taking the opposite position, Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad Is Good for You explores contradictions, or the “virtues of popular media.”  In noting that books and reading are always seen as good and that video games and the Internet are always seen as bad, Johnson highlights evidence that the latter also teach positive skills.  In particular, Johnson parallels reading and video gaming, arguing that popular media equally require “effort, concentration, attention, the ability to make sense of words, to follow narrative threads, to sculpt imagined worlds out of mere sentences on the page.”  Ultimately, Johnson calls for a balanced diet of both analog and digital “life experiences” that include “reading books, sending email, surfing the web, playing baseball.”

More confident in the digital future, Don Tapscott’s Grown Up Digital concludes that reading paper and screens require the same skills, with screen reading needing “and then some.”  His concluding “In Defense of the Future” challenges critics to not think that screen reading makes us dumber by compromising our capacity for critical thinking.  Tapscott argues that online activities—“hunting for information, reading, and responding”—require focus and attention.

Several studies of readers using paper and screen technologies in different settings underscore the similarities and differences of reading paper versus screens.  Patricia Wallace’s The Internet in the Workplace describes modern work conditions that could not function without reading, even though her descriptions of effectively writing and receiving e-mail and other business communications do not reference them.  Wallace’s chapter on workplace e-learning points to the equivalence of presenting texts in face-to-face and web-based classes.  Robert C. MacDougall’s Digination describes a tension between literacy and media literacy.  He looks at e-mail, iPods, laptop computers, smart phones, the Internet, search engines, and eBay as “mechanisms that spend and extend us in all kinds of ways”—technologies that are all about reading.  MacDougall recognizes that reading on screens texts first published as printed books is not the same experience and calls for preservation of “media diversity” and a variety of reading practices.  Other similar studies include Abigail J. Sellen and Richard H. R. Harper’s The Myth of the Paperless Office and Margaret Mackey’s Literacies across Media.

N. Katherine Hayles, in How We Think, and Anouk Lang in her edited collection, From Codex to Hypertext, emphasize the differences in the literacies of paper versus screens.  Hayles’ chapter “How We Read” elaborates on the need for children to be multitextual and able to read in different ways.  Tackling the question of gaining from screens the literacies associated with reading paper, Hayles mainly compares “close” or “deep” reading with “hyper” and “machine” reading.  Hayles describes an exercise in which her class reads a hypertext novel as if it were a printed codex, concluding that “Here already-existing print literacies were enlisted to promote and extend digital literacy.”  Lang’s introduction to her collection of contributed essays on contemporary literary reading practices asserts that the “cognitive processes” of reading hypertext fiction “demand very different skills from those required for a codex book.”

Recognizing that the information economy’s scarcest commodity is attention rather than information, Richard Lanham’s The Economics of Attention calls for inventing a new reading format that all at once capitalizes on the full capacities of human biology, language, and technology.  The fundamental cause for arguing about the equivalence of reading paper versus screens, Lanham suggests, is a preoccupation with communication’s “stuff.”  He thinks that silent reading has essentially muted writing and that electronic media can revitalize both by returning to language’s natural orality.  Reminding us that reading aloud predominated during most of reading’s history, Lanham points to limits imposed on electronic formats by resistance to making screens do more than paper.  Emphasis has been on reformatting when it should have been on remediating.  Lanham cites scriptio continua, concrete poetry, illuminated initials, and rhetorical figures as complex media that need to be both seen and heard in order to be fully understood.  Lanham’s suggestion for improving the reading experience is simple: “Make it easier to read on screen, and people no longer find it hard to read on screen.”

Other works with arguments similar to Lanham’s include Scrolling Forward, by David M. Levy, whose chapter “Reading and Attention” points to the need for more efficient ways to read that use our attention well.  Robert Hassan in The Age of Distraction similarly points out reading’s biological inadequacy in a chronically distracted, networked society.  Meanwhile, David Trend’s Everyday Culture finds reading to be ubiquitous.  His chapter “Reading: Language, Communication, and New Media” identifies as readable “media forms and technologies,” not only written language but also human speech and sound recordings, photography, motion pictures, and interactive media.  Trend’s main point is that “readers can exert a degree of control over the sequence of ideas they are given” by different media.  Trend’s later The End of Reading calls for the end of reading as we know it, arguing that communicating with “the visual world of media” is more natural and effective than reading written language.

Works Cited