Monday, January 22, 2007
A Book in the Hand...
Today Will Richardson posted a reference to an article by Thomas Washington, a librarian in the Washington, D.C. area, in which the author expressed concern about the impact that techonology-based information access is having on student reading habits. "We teach students," says Washington, "how to maximize a database search, about successful retrieval rates. What usually gets lost in the scramble is a careful reading of the material. Students are still checking out the standard research fare — the Thomas Jefferson biography, the volume of literary criticism on Jane Austen — but few read it. The library checks the books back in a day later, after the students have extracted the information vitals — usually an excerpt or two to satisfy the requirement that a certain number of works be cited in their papers." He goes on to tell some stories about other interactions he's had with students for whom curling up with a good book is not high on their list of personal pleasures.
I've got to say that I share his concerns. I remember pretty clearly one afternoon last fall when I was walking from my end of the campus to an afterschool meeting at the junior school at the other end. I passed students playing cards. I passed students listening to iPods. I passed students working on laptops. I passed students eating snacks and playing frisbee and sitting around and talking story. I remember being somewhat surprised, and not a little gratified, when I turned the corner by the Wo Center and saw a girl (and it would have to be a girl) sitting by herself under a tree, deeply engrossed in reading a book. The image stuck with me because it was, because it has become, something of an anomaly.
I'm starting to notice the same drift in my own life and work. I've been an obsessive reader all my life. Even in years when my life has been relatively busy I've been able to find the time to read between fifty and a hundred books a year, not counting the magazines and newspapers and student papers and school-related professional development materials and the like. But in the last six months, as I've been spending progressively more time in Blogworld, I'm seeing my reading time—at least as I've traditionally thought of it—diminishing. I'm doing a lot more scanning, or grazing, and I'm finding that very stimulating in certain ways. I'm certainly doing a LOT more writing, a lot more regularly, than I have done at any other comparable period in my life. And yet there's something that I value that feels like it is slipping away.
Reading words on a screen is not the same as reading a book. It's not the same texturally, it's not the same physiologically, it's not the same in terms of its inner dynamics, the architecture of the inner space the activity allows or encourages me to inhabit. Will, in his comment on another post, says "...books, ultimately, are words and ideas, not paper and bindings. Just because something is in digital form doesn’t make it any less a book, does it? Sure the form factor is different, and maybe the experience feels different to those of us who have grown up with paper and bindings. But I have to tell you, I love lying in bed at night reading on my Tablet PC, scrolling pages, marking up the text. If I could get more books in digital form, I would read more of them on my computer. Again, I think the jury is out as to whether this direction is good or bad…it’s just different."
I'm not sure I agree. I agree that the jury is out, but I'm not sure it's "just" different. It's different in a way that has implications and consequences, some of which may in fact turn out to be good, or bad. On Saturdays during January and February I often do admissions interviews for students applying to my school. One question I like to ask is "Do you like to read?" Responses fall into three broad categories. There is a very small percentage of students who say yes, and then, when I ask them to recommend a book to me, are able to speak with some enthusiasm and authority about what they recall about what they have read. There is a somewhat larger group of students, who, knowing that they are in an admissions interview, are tactically savvy enough to say, "Oh, absolutely," but who then prove to be unable to come up with a coherent sentence about any particular book. The largest group, and it grows larger each year, is made up of students who say either "No, I don't like to read, but (sigh) I will if I have to," or "I only like to read certain kinds of books." Take Harry Potter and Lemony Snicket out to the picture, and they're essentially non-readers. Or, more accurately, they're merely functional readers. They may be, and and in most cases probably are, technologically adept. They're good at text messaging and instant messaging and Googling and playing video games. They know how to access information. They graze, grab what they need to get an assignment done, and then move on. But their mental lives, as far as I can see, are about a mile wide and about an inch deep.
"What gets lost," says Washington, "is a careful reading of the material." That phrase, "a careful reading," gestures at a whole set of conditions: a time, a place, a text worthy of sustained attention, a reader with a certain set of habits of mind more or less like the ones I was trying to spell out yesterday. I'm nearly sixty years old, I've been a reader all my life, and I find that under the influence of the Web 2.0 I am reading more widely and less deeply than I used to. At least I am in a position to reflect on what I might be missing and make appropriate adjustments, seek out a balance. But I'm worried about the kids who are never going to know what it is that they missed out on.
Posted by Bruce Schauble at 5:02 PM