When we talk about reading online (or on an ereader, for the sake of argument) responsibility is an odd way to think about the part a publisher plays: despite one’s best intentions, a publisher is not the sole factor in how people read. The better way to approach the issue of digital reading and retention is through raising awareness and expanding literacy education to teach people, at least from school age, how best to interact with different digital texts for different purposes. In my opinion, educators, publishers, and ultimately readers all have a part to play in how we interact with and get the most out of digital reading.
The use of the Web was popularized on a mainstream level because of its ability to share messages over a network. While reading emails or online chats, personal websites, blogs and later in newsfeeds were the primary way people started reading digitally, the functions of digital reading have greatly expanded to academic, literary, and leisure reading– but the perception of reading on screens for these expanded (arguably “deeper) functions hasn’t quite caught up.
The first reason for this is because the majority of readers, educators, and publishers are still biased towards print reading as a more valuable and meaningful way to gain knowledge. As Dan Cohen points out, there is an “inertial positive feeling of physical books for most readers”, a hangover of being surrounded by print books our whole lives, that makes people generally inclined to choose print over screen. An article like James MacWilliams’ is telling, but not that reading is some kind of lost art: to me it indicates that we still haven’t learned how to read digital content the way we do print, and that writers or publishers who produce these kinds of articles perpetuate the idea that we never will. Ironically, MacWilliams writes that reading is something we must be taught to do, but that the “frenetic nature of digital life” inhibits our attention spans and is the reason we read less, and less deeply. Instead he argues that physical interaction with a book is what helps us submerge deeply into a text. It’s true that the Web in particular is a distracting environment. We are bombarded by enticing but ultimately dissatisfying clickbait articles. A Kindle or Kobo may mimic a page, but for many readers, not knowing how many pages we’ve come or how many we have left is disorienting and distracting. A long-form New Yorker article is lined with advertisements. I am as guilty as anyone of reading an article that shares a browser window with dozens of other tabs. However, these are merely forms we have complete liberty to either adapt to, or to change for the better. As long as publishers and writers remain subsumed in the notion that the internet as merely a tool for commerce and dismiss the potential of digital reading, the culture of digital reading won’t be taken as seriously as print is.
But I don’t think the bias has to remain this way forever. In Hannah McGregor’s History of Publishing seminar, we looked at reading digitally compared to physically in the context of Alan Galey’s essay “The Enkindling Reciter: E-Books in the Bibliographical Imagination.” In it, Galey compares the phenomenon of the consumers’ desire for– and outrage at not obtaining– an out-of-print book that was readily available as an ebook. As Galey points out, “e-books are human artifacts, and bear the traces of their making no less for being digital, though they bear those traces in ways bibliographers have yet to explain thoroughly”– and I would argue, that the average consumer cannot yet explain either (214). Our familiarity with the “forensics” of print (that is, the way we are able to conceive of the construction of the book as we look at it’s glue binding and ink upon the page) means that we feel we can get closer to it, can understand it on a more intimate level. The forensics of a digital text, on the other hand, are still relatively mysterious, even magical, to the uninitiated eye: a mash of light, pixels, code, or a server in some remote place.
It is here I see a prime educational opportunity. As people become more familiar with how the internet or how e-readers work, the technology loses its mystique, and importantly, its novelty. A screen does not just have to be a vehicle for games and frivolity, which is what television, and later the PCs, has set us up to perceive. The kind of academic or intellectual value placed on print reading can be placed on digital reading; it’s just a matter of reframing. This has already been happening at a school level for a few years: in many elementary and high schools, tablet readers are an essential tool on which students do readings, exercises, and submit homework assignments. People in older generations might be aghast, thinking that these tablets will only be used for games and distraction, but that’s only what we have seen them useful for. When delivered and trained correctly, the use of tablets will have increasing success– and the adults who grow out of the e-reader-educated generation will be better equipped to read (and read well) in digital environments.