Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Is reading on the .net "real reading"?

My colleague Emily sent me a message on Twitter yesterday, asking for my opinion on an article in the New York Times titled "Literacy Debate: Online, R U Really Reading?" It's a big, deep, and broad question with many more aspects than I'll be able to discuss here, but I'll give it my best shot, Emily!

In the concluding chapter of a book I read recently* (and yes, despite the fact that I am a netaholilc, I also read books), the author discussed this very issue. One of her conclusions is that the Internet age is bringing us into a "Secondary Orality", which is to say that communication and interaction with 'text' on the Internet is bringing us back to aspects of the oral culture which preceded our current literate culture. As one of the people interviewed in the Times article said, the 'net is more about conversation than it is about reading. It's just that, in many cases, the conversation takes place in print.

Reading on the 'net is sometimes real reading (I sat down and read a 4 page article from the Times on the 'net, didn't I?) but in many cases it's really more of a discussion. In a discussion, ideas flow quickly in a stream. We don't rest our mind on any of them for long, but rather we allow ourselves to be swept along in the give and take, point and counter-point, tangent and return, fluid experience of words and ideas.

This is both a good thing and a bad thing. Discussions are wonderful! I thrive on them--both the online and the face-to-face kind--and love the opportunity to engage in meaningful conversation with people from many places and perspectives. But it's a bad thing if it completely replaces the quiet, reflective, self-to-text introspection that can only come when one individual sits down to read. As Maryanne Wolf explains in her excellent book, the most important thing that literacy gave us is time to think. Reading is thinking. Discussion is also thinking, but it's not the same kind of thinking. Discussion, in my experience, is usually thinking broadly (many ideas touched on lightly) while reading is thinking deeply (one idea explored thoroughly).

Ultimately, I believe that we need to be able to do both things well to succeed in the modern world. Reading on the 'net is not a substitute for reading books, but it is an important complement to it. I wouldn't give up either for a fist full of greenbacks.


*The book in question is: Proust and the Squid: the Story and Science of the Reading Brain, by Maryanne Wolf, Harper: 2007. Learn more about this book on LibraryThing!

No comments: