Meet the Ghosts of Reading Past, Present, and Future


Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images

Readers gonna read, and meanwhile, the page-vs.-screen debate continues to rage. Both online and off, we’re awash in contradictory, inconclusive studies about the flowering and/or decline of pleasure reading. There is, too, ample evidence for the convenience of consuming text on the Internet, and for the resulting loss in comprehension: We appear to access more and absorb less. We are told that social reading—on Goodreads, for instance—is great! It also predicts widespread intellectual devastation. (“When we allow another person into the discussion, our dialogue with the author dissipates immediately,” sayeth Proust.) And the immediate proximity, online, of the entire manifold of human knowledge feeds us a lot of useful context, not to mention a form of attention-kryptonite that makes the pre-Web tyranny of choice look like an artists’ collective.

Linguist Naomi Baron’s new book, Words Onscreen, takes up these issues and more, promising to unfold “the fate of reading in a digital world.” Baron is no Chicken Little—her concerns (mostly, that e-perusal might fracture focus and disrupt deep engagement with the written word, even as it brings more content to more people at affordable prices) make sense. This is, of course, well-trodden ground: hyperlinks good, lack of ability to annotate bad. Portability good, headaches and eyestrain bad. Efficiency of skimming for answers good, loss of a rewarding, continuous, and holistic relationship with the text bad.

So! Instead of going back over the research, we convened a séance with the Ghosts of Reading Past, Present, and Future. Their free-form conversation is below.

Ghost of Reading Past: Verily, I read the hard copy version of Baron’s book cover to cover, at a slow and deliberate pace, as is my wont. I also reread passages that I liked or wished to understand more thoroughly. It took me two weeks.

Ghost of Reading Present: I read the e-book. I tried to read it your way, but my eyes ended up tracing an F-shape onscreen. I read the top line left to right, in other words, and then as I went down started skipping more and more of the right half of the “page.” Throughout, I was less likely to reread. The book took me three days to finish.

Ghost of Reading Future: Chose the e-book. Used CTRL-F to search for keywords and then skimmed the one or two sentences around them. Took 20 min, and I was simultaneously on Snapchat, Gawker, and an elliptical machine. #YOLO.

Past: Forbear your smugness, Future! College kids (at least the ones Baron surveyed) actually prefer reading in hard copy. The longer the text is, the more they say they want print. They say they understand the material better and take more pleasure in it when they can hold it in their hands. And these are digital natives!

Present: Yeah, but. E-book sales are through the roof, while print sales are down. Colleges are increasingly putting textbooks online to help defray costs. In an ideal world, maybe students (and people!) would prefer print books, but environmental and financial concerns coupled with market realities are moving their (and our) reading irrevocably screenward.

Future: Wah-wah. Stop weeping over the decline of horse-drawn carriages and ADAPT, you guys. Just because e-books don’t promote so-called “slow reading” (by situating readers in a physical geography, giving them something they can hold and touch and smell) doesn’t mean they make it impossible. Studies show you can train yourself to focus on a Kindle, especially if you disconnect from the Web.

Past: You underestimate haptics! Writes Baron: “We don’t just decipher words on pages. We also sense them.” Consider all the writers who have said they feel closer to their work when they can touch it. Pablo Neruda: “The typewriter separated me from a deeper intimacy with poetry, and my hand brought me closer to that intimacy again.” Iris Murdoch: A word processor is “a glass square which separates one from one’s thoughts and gives them a premature air of completeness.” Umberto Eco: “The book is like the spoon, scissors, the hammer, the wheel. Once invented, it cannot be improved”—

Present: A pithy quote from Umberto Eco isn’t science. I was more worried by Baron’s suggestion that authors are composing shorter pieces, or ones lacking in richness and complexity, to harmonize with our new reading habits. As for physicality, experts do say that print books give you a sense of ownership—not only over the physical object but over its intellectual content—whereas ephemeral screens position you as a “visitor” in the text. You’re in, you’re out, you no longer carry the words with you. Baron thinks this shallower relationship to reading material encourages a focus on data rather than truth. Remember when she describes trying to teach students about the sociologist David Riesman’s theory of inner- and outer-directed cultures? One young woman was so busy using her iPhone to correct Baron’s spelling of Riesman that she missed the distinction entirely!

Future: But again, anecdata city over here. Didn’t you see the part where Baron compared the simplifying processes you find online (algorithmic shortening services like Summly) to print abridgments, book reviews, summaries, and encyclopedia entries? Even the word magazine was adapted from the French “a place to store things”—those “things” being tidbits from longer works you don’t have time to read in their entirety. None of this is new, is what I’m saying.

Past: There’s nothing new under the sun, but changes can still make a difference. Case in point, did you see they are making an all-woman Ghostbusters movie?

Present: YAAS I love Kristen Wiig.

Future: Already saw it.