In Defence of Readers

Mandy Brown writes a thought­ful post on read­ing in the digit­al age.

The web is still a noisy, crowded place—but it’s also lim­it­less, and surely we can find space enough for reading—a space where the text speaks to the read­er and the read­er does not strain to hear.

The top­ic of online read­ing skills sur­faces reg­u­larly among my uni­ver­sity col­leagues. Are the kids get­ting worse? There’s a per­sist­ent cliché that the gen­er­a­tion I teach — born in 1990 or so — are nat­ive speak­ers of lin­gua com­pu­tato and come to uni­ver­sity with a built-in expert­ise at the manip­u­la­tion of inform­a­tion and com­puter soft­ware in gen­er­al. Not so, alas. Many of my stu­dents struggle with copy and paste…and need help read­ing web art­icles crit­ic­ally. What’s the rela­tion­ship between the paper-based read­ing skills of old fogeys like me and the screen-based skills of the young­er gen­er­a­tions? That’s the ques­tion.

I won­der if this has some­thing to do with spe­cificity. When I was grow­ing up, the answers to ques­tions were con­tained with­in works like encyc­lo­pae­di­as and bio­graph­ies, but dis­trib­uted. A cer­tain amount of pro­cessing was required to trans­form the inform­a­tion into a use­ful shape. The Internet, being some­what broad­er and easi­er to search, con­tains inform­a­tion that might already be in a form neces­sary to answer the research ques­tion.

Just won­der­in’.

Of course, I’m not sug­gest­ing that the young­er gen­er­a­tions are poorer read­ers. It might be that their read­ing skills are becom­ing more gen­er­al; not so good at slow, crit­ic­al read­ing of texts, but bet­ter at syn­er­gist­ic pro­cessing of mul­tiple sources. This brave new world, eh?

A List Apart: Articles: In Defense of Readers

Author: Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

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