The summer I discovered fanfiction, I started to do the bulk of my reading online. I was thirteen years old at the time, reading on homemade fan sites and platforms that had either been co-opted or were fanfic-friendly with awful interfaces (those spaces were not the web libraries Frank Chimero envisions, let me tell you). Still, I have been reading online for years, and if my experience with digital reading has taught me anything, it’s that:
- We definitely have to train our brains to read digitally.
- People can be just as snobby about how they read online as how they read books.
Firstly, it’s important to acknowledge that cultural capital of digital reading is already less than that of print—though the reasons why could fill an entire semester’s worth of blog post and won’t really be covered, here. Suffice it to say that there is something about the digital medium that makes it be perceived as lesser than to its print counterpart. Therefore, it’s no surprise that within the digital medium, those forms that most resemble print (i.e. eBooks, online articles) are the forms that hold the most cultural capital. Though I don’t agree that one from of reading is more “pure” than another, I do feel that the sentiment exists.
Audiobooks are a great example of this. Associate professor of education Beth Rogowsky of Bloomsberg University of Pennsylvania says she viewed audiobooks as “cheating.” This implies that listening to a print book is not a form of reading, but a way to consume stories that is viewed negatively due to its accessibility and ease of use; it’s a short-cut for people who don’t want to spend their time reading Real Books.
The act of reading a book traditionally is something that requires a certain degree of privilege: one must know how to read, which means having the ability to attend school. Traditionally reading a book also requires leisure time, whereas audiobooks can be listened to on the go—while driving, working, etc. This supports the idea of audiobooks as being less valuable, or as a technology that is used to “cheat.” The expectation is that it’s what you listen to when you can’t get to a Real Book, not as a valuable piece of technology in its own right. There are even misconceptions that we do not retain as much information when listening to audiobooks.
Essentially, these arguments use the same logic surrounding the question of what books have and do not have literary merit: those use plain, easy-to-understand language, and can be read quickly—like romance, crime, and erotica—are considered to be commercial fiction, which are considered to be low brow for many reasons, but mostly for their accessibility (in language, in price point, etc.). Commercial fiction is not Important, and is therefore not part of the literary canon, which is curated by tastemakers and the Academy. Not called an ivory tower for nothing, university English departments are still rife with snobby professors who believe that the English literary canon, for all its lack of diversity and generally inaccessible language and writing (James Joyce, I’m looking at you)—is the only thing people should be reading. In my opinion, this argument has merely been superimposed onto the question of form in digital environments; instead of viewing commercial fiction as lesser due to its accessibility, we think of audiobooks as such. The scope has shifted from what you read to how you read, despite the fact that the underlying arguments are the same.
So, yes, I think that there continues to be a belief that “pure” or “tainted” reading experiences exist—but I want no part in them. People who feel this way about audiobooks do not consider how helpful they can be to those learning how to read, or those who can’t read in a traditional manner due to accessibility issues. I believe that as technology changes, our ways of reading change as well, and no one method is not better than the other.