Naomi S. Baron
On Feb. 6, I waited in the cold for 7.5 hours to meet author Neil Gaiman at Old Firehouse Books in Fort Collins, Colo. An estimated 2,000 fans braved the elements to have the author of The Sandman graphic novels, Coraline and American Gods autograph his new hardcover collection, Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances.
Despite the wait (and the fact that I was terribly under-dressed), everyone was jovial, and it felt more like a bibliophile block party than a reception line. Any weariness I may have felt was quickly (and repeatedly) dismissed with an idealistic sentiment voiced by many in attendance, “Isn’t it great to see this many people waiting in line for a book?”
Indeed, it was this very love of books that compelled me to read Naomi S. Baron’s Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World, an impressive work of scholarship and social commentary by this professor of linguistics at American University.
One of Baron’s professed interests is “electronically mediated communication,” and Words Onscreen combines research, anecdote and history to explore the differences between the printed and digitized word. This isn’t a trend piece, but a wide-reaching study on reading, beginning with the inquiry that “if eReading is less well suited for many longer works or even for short ones requiring serious thought, what happens to reading if we shift from print to screens?”
Baron takes us to some expected places (studies on digital vs. print reading habits; the effect technology has on our brains; the digital democratization of information; emerging social norms for electronic devices) and some unexpected ones (the history of anthologies and abridged editions; the slow reading movement; the impact of the scroll bar on reading habits).
Scrolling and reading, if you’re curious, leads to “worse comprehension” of content.
Though Baron’s scope is wide, she never loses sight of her target. She successfully threads each narrative sojourn into the conversation of how we engage with text. One of her deeper philosophical meanderings concerns the definition of reading itself. Is the act of reading simply scanning our eyes across the page? What about those passages whose complexity or sheer beauty cause the reader to set down the book and meditate on those words? What about re-reading? Studies show that pausing while reading and re-reading leads to better comprehension of the material (not surprisingly).
Research is important, as it informs best practices for teaching and learning, but Baron admits the difficulties with measuring reading comprehension. Mere content recall provides only plot summary, and deep understanding takes both time and contemplation. Take, for instance, Gogol’s classic novel, Dead Souls.
“Some of the benefits of literature come from discussions with others or personal reflection at quiet moments. Payoffs may not surface until years later when, having lived and experienced more, we discover the relevance of Gogol’s world to ours. Try measuring that.”
Like many academic books (as opposed to general nonfiction), Baron tends to over-support some of her conclusions, citing studies with overlapping information, but that’s to be expected. The author has many insightful things to say throughout the book, but there’s not much in the conclusion that would be news to an academic audience.
For this, I don’t blame the author, but reality. There’s no closing the barn door on the Kindle or Nook (on which I read my digital galley of Words Onscreen), and it’s hard to predict the direction of accelerated technology. Also, there are many positives to digital reading to weigh against the negative, from minor conveniences (not having to carry five books on an international flight) to those of great importance (the facilitation of increased global literacy).
Baron instead advises instructors and avid readers on how to navigate the digital-print hybrid. Her criticisms of e-reading are fair and supported by research, and her tone is never melancholic or luddite. The ultimate takeaway from Words Onscreen is that the content matters more than the container, although Baron also makes a compelling argument for the container as totem.
For the roughly 2,000 bibliophiles in line with me at the Neil Gaiman signing, the container was still something of value: a beautifully printed and bound edition with a personalized signature in permanent ink.
As Baron points out, it’s not just the text on the pages that matter. We fall in love with the smell of books, the crispness of the paper, unique typefaces that digital readers can’t reproduce. We can underline, highlight, write in the margins. Some keep their books in pristine condition, while others dog-ear, fold and break-in a book like they would a new baseball glove. Their utility extends beyond the reading. Bookshelves provide memories for the reader, a conversation spark for guests and ready access to favorite works.
There is something lost in the translation from print to digital.
For me, it calls to mind Harlow’s monkeys. If all they needed was food, then the monkeys wouldn’t object to curling up with a wire mother. Except, they needed the nurturing touch of the cloth mother. For the same reason, meal replacement shakes or futuristic food pills will never take the place of an actual dinner, because eating is not just about the absorption of nutrients.
With technology advancing at a bullet’s pace, who knows what will come of books in the future. It’s clear from Baron’s research that the format of what we read affects how we read, but it’s hard to predict where that will take us.
Wherever we end up, Words Onscreen should serve as an important guidebook. It’s a wonderful and important book, no matter how you read it.