A Few Thoughs after Reading Naomi Baron’s Words Onscreens


Baron Image

I just took to my local library twenty hard cover books that I’ve purchased over the last 15 years. It was only with slight regret that I’ve given them away. Though I might be considered a “book lover” and have a strong appetite for reading fiction and non-fiction, I am hardly ever sentimental about my book collection and don’t  fetishize book ownership. While much is made of the physical presence and tactile qualities of the book by those who abhor e-readers, most of the books on my shelf are as much “out of sight, out of mind” as the hundreds of books that I have loaded onto my first Kindle acquired six years ago. Rare are the moments when I have turned back to a previously read book, whether it be on the high shelf in the den or on my second Kindle. It’s a consolation to know that the books that I have given away can be accessed if need be and that having a “copy” in my hand can be done instantly through a Kindle order.

Baron gives many examples of and worries about  the dangers of distraction when readers do “deep reading” on devices that also offer the instant gratifications of internet connections to e-mail and apps. As a recent owner of a smart phone (a purchase made to escape the ridicule of my children), I understand well the lure of online material and the habitual impulse to consult e-mail and websites frequently. I occasionally regret having succumbed to the seductions. And yet when I am doing serious reading on my Kindle, I am able to resist the distractions, perhaps because the somewhat primitive early version of my Kindle  provides only clumsy transitions into the web. I wonder if my powers of concentration would be compromised if I was reading the same material on the latest I-Pad Air.

This WordPress blog site offers bloggers the opportunity for writers to activate the “distraction free writing mode.” Click on the icon and the dashboard on the left panel and the publishing options on the right panel disappear. What kind of blog contributor needs to activate this function?

Early in my life I came across Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book, and subsequently have read many other similar pieces  (especially those written by contemporary advocates of the “slow reading” movement). As a result, I am aggressive reader whose engagement with the text is demonstrated by the marginal annotations, inside cover ruminations, question marks and exclamation points, and lines connecting similar ideas and images. The books that I use in class are even more heavily marked up than leisure time reads. Occasionally I’ll distribute to my students a page or two of an annotated book, hoping that those students who come to class with a book as virginal as the day they purchased it might see how engaged reading might be done.

When reading on my Kindle, I feel more than a bit hamstrung, for the mechanisms for annotations are much more limited and much more time-consuming. I do highlight and bookmark text but rarely embed a question or a comment. If I’m writing a review of Between the World and Me (one of my last blog posts), I’ll skim all of the highlighted text, usually about 10-15% of the whole, as a way of getting re-engaged with Cole’s ideas. As a cost measure, I’m taking more books, like the Baron book, out of the library and feel equally incapacitated because the copy is not my own. Baron informs me that advance Kindle users have access to a component that enables the reader to see what all other readers of that book have highlighted, but that is of very little interest to me.

Baron is very familiar with the research into student reading strategies and preferences and has conducted a fair bit of it herself. Her conclusion is that students prefer books for “long form” reading and that they remember more of what they read when they shun the e-reader. My observations of student choices for their “reading platforms” supports this conclusion. For every student using an e-reader (or using their computer or phone to get the text) there are four or five who are using the old-fashioned trade paperback that I have made available in the bookstore. I don’t have firm handle on how many students obtain their hard copy books from Amazon or college text book discounters. What I do know is that for my class of 25 in the fall, the bookstore has on its shelf 15 copies of each work, a number determined presumably by the algorithms of the Follett’s distribution department.

Baron’s book has made me want to know more about the reading experiences of my students: their preferred sites for reading, the duration of their average reading session, their battles against distractions and the nature of those distractions, and their ability to achieve some optimal reading state in which they are immersed in the challenges and pleasures of reading imaginative literature. I need to ask students directly about this element of the out-of-classroom experience. I do know that students do reasonably well on the daily quizzes on the readings that I give. 75% end up the semester with a score of 75% or better, and that’s a good enough pre-condition to have a good class discussion.  But how they get to that level of performance is still the question.

Baron summarizes the research on the differences in reading strategies for “deep reading” and “reading for information” (what Nick Carr calls in the title of his book “The Shallows”.) Eye movement tracking technology has enabled us to see that when we turn to Wikipedia, we don’t spend very long on the first screen, rarely scroll down to the next screen, somewhat readily click on  link, and scan the page in an F-like pattern. The eye moves fully from left to right at the top but further down on the page the scan becomes short, like the lower horizontal line in the letter. While doing far more screen reading time on full- length journalistic pieces in sites like Salon or The Chronicle of Higher Education than on encyclopedia sources, I still feel an increase in my impatience with certain readings. The Chicago Tribune, which I get daily and read religiously with my cereal and juice, has many informative articles on California water problems, Republican presidential aspirants, and corruption among educational administrators. Of late, I’m a little too eager to get through the piece and unsystematically read “a paragraph here, a paragraph there,” hoping to get the gist of the piece, or at least enough to know what everyone is talking about around “the watercooler.” Do my students have the same feeling as they sit down to read the 85 pages assigned for next week, doing a close enough skim to remember the story details that will appear on the quiz but not really paying attention to the ideas and  emotions that the text may be designed to arouse?

There are a number of occasions during each class day that are both amusing and perplexing. Each episode lasts for 10 minutes. It’s the change between classes, a time when almost all students quickly back their backpacks and take out their phones. Some students continue to consult their phones for the full change period and sometimes through the start of the next class. (Baron reports that rare is the student who goes through an entire week without using her phone for non-class purposes during class time.) I don’t think you need to long for the nostalgia of the days of Mr. Chips, when students gathered around beloved teachers after class, to think that something has been lost here. Shouldn’t there be at least a minute or two of contemplation of what happened in the previous 50 minutes? Shouldn’t there be time for at least a fleeting conversation with the teacher? I’d like to know what important matters have replaced these activities?

Words Onscreen is a thorough summary of the literature on reading; Baron is a helpful guide for the layperson through this rather complicated field, made even more complicated by the new discoveries in brain science. She’s smart enough to know when to offer a certainty but also wise enough to know when to say that the matter is still unresolved or even beyond our abilities to fully know. As the notes above demonstrate, she’s got me to think more deeply about my own reading practices and preferences and those of others, especially my students. I’m sure that you were to read Words Onscreen, in whatever format, you’d have many similar thoughts.

About Dr. Michael Cunningham

Dr. Michael Cunningham is Professor Emeritus in English.

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