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Reading Screens vs. Reading Paper: New Literacies? (December 2014): Attention and Engagement

By James K Bracken

Attention and Engagement

A common theme in many of the above discussions is the significance of attention and engagement in reading regardless of a text’s format.  While recognizing that all texts are different and that all readers read differently, many critics seem to agree that texts are what readers make of them and that reading experiences are ultimately controlled by readers.  Call it focus, mindfulness, being in the present—or the lack thereof—reading as observing and apprehending meaning is all about attention.

Robert Bringhurst, in What Is Reading For? defines reading simply as “paying attention to what’s in front of you and trying to make sense of it.”  Similarly, Maggie Jackson’s Distracted, Ann Blair’s Too Much to Know, Winifred Gallagher’s Rapt, and Cathy N. Davidson’s Now You See It put attention at the foundation of effective reading.  Distinguishing between intensive and extensive reading, Jackson’s chapter “Judgment: Book and Word on the ‘Edge of Chaos’” argues that attention to the text creates the reading experience.  “Literacy is what we make of it,” Jackson concludes, as readers choose to discover meaning under the “veneer of the information world.”  Blair amplifies this point, emphasizing the importance of human attention and judgment regardless of a text’s relative primitiveness or sophistication.  Blair concludes that software and hardware cannot substitute for attention, comprehension, and memory.  Gallagher goes further, noting attention’s value not only for effective reading, but also for effective living.  Finally, without referencing reading in her checklist of “Twenty-First Century Literacies,” Cathy N. Davidson’s Now You See It puts attention at the foundation for “critical consumption of information” and learning.

David L. Ulin’s  The Lost Art of Reading finds the book’s paper format as an aid to attentive reading.  A book’s silent and static physicality is a counter to the mediated chaos and distraction associated with electronic devices.  Ulin’s conclusion is that reading paper and screens are essentially the same experiences when the focus is on the “primacy of the text.”  In a survey of why and why not to read literature, Mikita Brottman in The Solitary Vice finds differences between reading paper versus screens to be semantic, in that both analog or digital texts are visual.  Reading is only worthwhile when, Brottman argues, it is engaged and reflective; reading otherwise is wasteful self-abuse.

Many more critics point to reading slowly as the best way to read attentively.  As for what you read, in The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction Alan Jacobs says read at a “whim,” but consciously read slowly and within human limitations.  Analysis of reading’s biology lets Jacobs conclude that eyes see paper and screens simply as alternate reading technologies and that all text-processing brains read in the same way.  Thomas Newkirk’s The Art of Slow Reading calls for reform in how reading is taught: “put away the stopwatches” and emphasize quality, not quantity.  Describing reading on the Internet as “efferent” and keen on getting information by selectively and formlessly “dipping in and exiting,” Newkirk argues for slow reading practices that engage the text deeply, like performing, memorizing, problem finding, and reading like a writer.  Likewise, Carl Honoré’s In Praise of Slowness describes keeping an Internet diary of his reading as a way of deliberately doing more with the words he reads, not merely “consuming fewer words per minute.”

Even accounts that try to describe reading paper versus screens in polemic terms end up making distinctions that recognize the importance of attention and engagement.  Ben Agger’s The Virtual Self thinks we write and read more than ever, but do so differently.  Saying that mindfulness has given way to using “fast epistemologies,” Agger distinguishes between reading for information and reading for understanding.  John Miedema’s Slow Reading insists on paper’s superiority while indicting screens: “For the e-book to serve the purposes of slow reading, it must become a print book.”  While calling for engagement in reading, Miedema seems to miss the point that slow reading puts readers in control of texts regardless of their formats.  For example, Miedema points out that hypertext takes “the reader away from the page being read,” but ignores that printed texts’ footnotes and illustrations also do this.

Different takes on slow reading’s extremes are Anne Fadiman’s Rereadings, Eugene H. Peterson’s Eat This Book, and Judith Shulevitz’s The Sabbath World.  Fadiman’s edited collection of reprinted contributed essays emphasizes that while first reading may have more velocity, focus on story, and pleasure, rereading takes into account the initial reading’s context to bring depth and worldly assessment.  Meanwhile, Peterson’s discussion of lectio divina regards reading as revealing God’s words to the human mind.  Print is simply “a piece of technology” that carries words that witness God’s revelation.  Similarly, Shulevitz says that to read sacred scriptures is to be in the presence of God.

What all discussions of attention and engagement in reading seem to show is that reading is something that really happens when the brain decodes and comprehends meaning.  Harold Bloom’s How to Read and Why finds no single way to read, although all reading aims to understand.  Mark Edmundson’s Why Read? recognizes reading as deriving life’s meaning from all forms of expression.  Calling close reading our practice when we first learn to read, Francine Prose’s Reading like a Writer focuses on words’ interrelationships to communicate meaning.  Likewise, Thomas C. Foster’s guidebooks How to Read Literature like a Professor and How to Read Novels like a Professor give advice applicable for reading literary texts either in print or on computer screens, watching their film adaptations (which he calls “Movies to Read”), or simply understanding their allusions in other media.  Alan Cheuse’s Listening to the Page, which mostly reprints previously published essays, offers a personal defense of literature’s deep reading.  Cheuse imagines a future space station engineer “as he picks up a copy of a book, or punches out the text on his computer screen, and begins to read, or, if you will, scan the text.”  Cheuse concludes that reading requires human engagement, where the most important interactivity happens in the brain and imagination, not on the device.

Francis Spufford in The Child That Books Built describes a book as what happens in the brain when reading.  Acknowledging a generational preference for paper, Spufford laments electronic media’s vilification and concludes that either paper or screens can work well as reading’s “chosen medium.”  In a similarly personal account, Andrew Piper in Book Was There rejects “tired binaries” of paper versus screens, fast versus slow, and deep versus shallow, to conclude that reading leads to meaning.  More recently, Wendy Lesser concludes in Why I Read that “there is no inherent difference between reading from a printed page and reading from an electronic device.  It just depends on what you are used to.”  Finally, Angus Phillips in Turning the Page describes reading print and “ereading” digital formats as equivalent but different reading experiences, noting the relative advantages and disadvantages of each.


Two viral YouTube videos, one featuring a scroll-savvy monk learning how to operate a book and the other showing an iPad-savvy infant trying to open a paper magazine, would lead us to think that the most essential literacies of paper and screen are turning pages and dragging icons.[1]  While this may in fact be accurate for operating either format, understanding their texts requires attentive reading.  No critic seriously challenges the importance of the ability to read deeply or critically.  Indeed, the common assumption that new literacies build on old ones would suggest that the ability to read is the most basic of all literacies.


I wish to thank my colleague Timothy Rasinski of Kent State University’s School of Teaching, Learning, and Curriculum Studies for reading a draft of this essay.


[1] “Medieval Helpdesk with English Subtitles,”, uploaded February 26, 2007; and “A Magazine Is an iPad That Does Not Work.m4v,”, uploaded October 6, 2011.  

Works Cited