The goal of “Words Onscreen,” Naomi S. Baron’s new book, is to account for the ways that “digital reading is reshaping our understanding of what it means to read” (p. xii). Baron argues that “digital reading is fine for many short pieces or for light content we don’t intend to analyze or reread,” but it “is less well suited for many longer works or even for short ones requiring serious thought” (p. xii). While Baron largely does an excellent job surveying the changes that new technologies have introduced to our reading habits — her demonstration of the ways our contemporary reading preferences have influenced writing practices is particularly compelling — her argument that “digital reading” is not “well suited” to “serious thought” or to reading long works is ultimately unconvincing.
One source of the argument’s weakness becomes apparent if one looks again at her statement above: What, exactly, is “digital reading”? “Digital reading” can be scrolling through a website on the computer at your desk or reading a scanned PDF on your tablet or swiping through a Kindle book on your phone. All of those are digital reading and all are different — significantly different in some cases. Putting aside the size and locational differences offered by each, these specific instances of digital reading offer a range of different tools for navigating and annotating texts. Unfortunately, as the blanket statements about “digital reading” suggest, Baron pays little attention to these differences, and her argument suffers for it.
This lack of attention to the details of digital reading tools and interfaces manifests itself in the book as two problems, one conceptual and one methodological. Conceptually, Baron generally pays little attention to the wide range of electronic reading interfaces and the very important differences in the affordances of those interfaces. Methodologically, the book tosses together anecdotes and a range of academic studies — from relatively recent surveys and experiments with current technologies to those that are 15-20 years old and involve outdated equipment that bears no resemblance to current electronic reading technologies or practices — into a flat landscape that fails to acknowledge any nuance in the technologies or practices of “digital reading.” Baron pays little attention to the ways that small differences in what reading software or hardware allows readers to do can have enormous effects on a reader’s habits.
Consider this passage on annotations from page 30 of “Words Onscreen”:
What about digital annotations? Comparatively speaking, eBooks are harder to annotate than print. In the memorable words of John Dickerson, chief political correspondent at Slate, “marking up text [on an iPad] is … like eating candy through a wrapper.” Admittedly, annotation continues to become easier on digital devices, especially for those who practice. Yet as of late 2013, the Book Industry Study Group [BISG] reported that 84 percent of American college students still said that ease of bookmarking and highlighting was either a “somewhat important” or “very important” reason for preferring print textbooks over digital.
Baron argues here that eBooks are harder to annotate than print books, and in defense of this claim she provides two pieces of evidence: an anecdote about the original Ipad and a survey of college students’ preferences regarding digital textbooks. Looking at this claim and the evidence for it provides a perfect encapsulation of the problems with Baron’s approach.
First, in describing his annoyances with annotation on his first generation iPad, Dickerson notes that most reading apps had disabled the copy and paste function — a fundamental affordance of digital text — and that annotation tools for books left much to be desired. Although Dickerson does not elaborate on this point, I know that early versions of the Amazon Kindle app for Ipad and Iphone made it difficult to access your highlights and notes and also did not enable basic functions like copy and paste and text searching. (Although the copy and paste function is still disabled in the Kindle reading apps, text search and annotation on the Kindle platform are now much improved.)
In the second case, the BISG survey — one that, incidentally, reports students who have tried one digital textbook tend to prefer them over print if they are 25% cheaper, a result that goes unnoticed here — focuses on textbook platforms from big academic publishers (you can read some sample PDF pages on the BISG’s website), a series of proprietary platforms that are generally used only for reading textbooks rented or purchased from these publishers.
If you have not used these platforms, it is difficult to describe their awfulness. The interfaces are clunky and slow, the quality of pages is often poor, and note-taking on these proprietary platforms can be difficult. (A personal anecdote; the last such platform I tested made it difficult to create notes on a text and impossible to export those notes in a usable fashion. In order to access the platform at all, I had to agree to a license agreement that threatened me with being banished from using the software — and therefore losing access to all electronic books from that publisher — if I ever criticized the software in public.)
To sum up, Baron’s claim in this paragraph that digital annotation is more difficult than print annotation is supported by an anecdote about the first generation Ipad and a survey of student attitudes regarding electronic textbook platforms. Neither is representative of contemporary “digital reading,” and the differences between these two examples is not acknowledged, much less addressed. In a pattern that is repeated with her other examples, these two quite different tools are grouped into the single, monolithic category of the “digital.”
And that, in a paragraph, is how the entire book is argued.
It is a shame. For example, Baron rightly questions the rush to electronic textbooks and other seemingly inevitable trends of digital culture; there has not been enough public scrutiny of the platforms for electronic textbooks that students are increasingly interested in, but criticizing a piece of software primarily designed to eliminate the used textbook market for its lack of functionality is nothing like a critique of “digital reading.”
Indeed, to return to the overall methodological problems in the book, when your claims rely largely on anecdotes, all it takes to counter those claims is another anecdote. For example, Clive Thompson has described his engagement with deep reading in tackling “War and Peace” on his phone. His story demonstrates that such deep reading is possible with some effort, as he had to train himself to avoid the distractions presented by his phone to focus on the book.
I should not need to note that reading a print book is not inherently un-distracting. Rather, we train ourselves to read books in ways that minimize distractions. Most of us do not attempt the deep reading Baron valorizes at a Starbucks, surrounded by casual conversations and job interviews, calls for completed orders and piped-in light jazz. We do not generally plop ourselves down with Derrida in front of a television with news radio playing in the background. When we read print, we manage our environment to focus our attention on the task at hand. Like Thompson describes of his own experience reading on his phone, we can do the same with digital environments, controlling our urge to interrupt and be interrupted. Put more bluntly, we must train ourselves and our students to do this. Managing distraction is a crucial skill in contemporary culture. To add a personal anecdote, I do nearly all of my serious reading on screens because I find it to be easier to concentrate and take notes when reading this way. Rather than arguing for a return to print for serious reading or demonstrating that “digital reading” is inherently flawed, what anecdotes of our difficulties adjusting to the various forms of reading on our screens suggests is that we are still at an early stage in the development of digital reading tools. (Perhaps a stage that parallels the early development other reading media: as Thompson documents, both early writing and early printing produced written materials about the size of phones.) More importantly, we are not yet cultured to digital reading as we are with reading print — we are still training ourselves to manage the new distractions produced by our devices and becoming literate in the navigational affordances of digital texts.
Acknowledging this is a difficult task, one that is not solved by calls to relegate our serious reading to ink and paper. I’m committed to the idea that the material form of information affects how that information is accessed and processed. From that perspective it is not simply fair to ask how one material formation of the book (or any text) affects how we process its content, it is essential. However, such a study should actually pay attention to the material formation of those books — the interfaces, the modes of access, the availability of content, navigation, and all of the other unique features that constitute the distinctions between different media. When these issues are ignored, any claims about “digital reading” become so general as to be useless. In attempting to address everything, such claims end up addressing nothing.
We are still waiting on a study that notes the changes produced by digital reading and instead of assuming some unique divide between print and digital, asks how a digital text can be best designed to make use of what it is good at — portability, searchability, accessibility, configurability — without hobbling itself for market purposes (I’m looking at you, Kindle and etextbook platforms). Sadly, “Words Onscreen” is not that study.
Banner image credit: Nate Edwards; second photo by John Jones