The title of this post is misleading and is a bold-faced lie because it doesn’t reflect the content, but that is my point. What the title does show is how we make instantaneous assumptions from things like titles which structure our thoughts and our reading in a certain way. The listicle model evoked by this polarising title will most likely either have you thinking ‘But we do need printed books!’ or ‘Let’s see then’ or ‘No, thank you, I don’t want to know about your crazy world, goodbye.’ I myself still see a value in printed books, but I must go on a very long tangent to explain why.
Structure, framework and presentation are all important concepts when we consider the politics of digital reading versus reading from the printed page. Although the territory is still very similar (for readers of English, at least, the eye scans from left to right on screen and on paper), debates considering the pros and cons of digital versus printed reading have much to say. Nicholas Carr, in his book The Shallows: How the Internet Is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember (London: Atlantic, 2010), has suggested that digital reading is analogous to poor reading, that people are more distracted whilst reading from a screen and therefore comprehension deteriorates. While this might be true, it is often the material we are reading, and the reasons we are reading it, that produce certain types of understanding.
- Titles Now, I imagine, for a real listicle, many people will partially read or entirely ignore the introductory paragraphs and go straight to the list. This means they will read a piece that is primarily contextualised by its title.
- Skim reading A reader used to this type of skipping or skimming will probably be very confused by these sentences and might have clicked off the article/post by now. A developed skimmer of articles might only read the subtitles.
- Magazines But how much is this kind of reading the product of convenience? How much is related to the expectations associated with the medium and format from which we read? How much is a direct result of a particular framework? The same listicle content in a magazine might produce a similar skipped/skimmed reading. My expectations when seeing a list available draws me to the list proper as a means to absorb a lot of information quickly. I know this is a very narrow example.
- TV and Newspapers Going back to the issue of fake/misleading news from a couple of weeks ago, titling and other prefatory material like the short description that appears under an article’s title shapes the way we will absorb what we read in said article.
Furthermore, we take for granted that the title of a piece will accurately correspond to its content. This relationship becomes uneasy online because of a lack of regulation. But aren’t newspaper headlines the forebear of these digital articles? Aren’t headlines on televised news similarly constructed?
- Technology While we make assumptions that one medium is better than another, the persistence of the printed book speaks for itself. Now that we have multiple technologies for reading, print included, it is up to us to decide which technology is most functional for any single situation.
- Functionality I agree with Carr in part because with the lack of obvious distractions on the printed page, my reading is likely to become ‘linear’, and my attention will be more focused, at least in comparison with trying to read from a screen. Doing a degree in English literature, I find it incredibly valuable to read from a physical, material text upon which I can exercise the function of physical/spatial memory. Such a physically fixed reading will usually allow me to more easily locate a particular scene.
- E-Readers My fellow PMARers have discussed here the benefits of using technology to distant read; I’m sure we’re all well aware of the convenience of digital or e-reading. In fact, most browsers have “reading modes” to create a “distraction-free” screen, thereby adapting most web pages for easy e-reading. We’re all digital readers in a way, unless you happen to print out the blog posts you intend to read.
Many of us who actively use social media will discuss topics, especially news, purely on the basis of seeing a title. This is important to note because how we accumulate information has changed and will continue to change. A clear sensitivity to the way we absorb information has changed the ways in which information about us is retrieved. It’s no longer ‘hits’ and ‘clicks’ that necessarily aggregate our online habits, but pausing long enough for a video or .gif to start playing on Facebook or Twitter.
The printed books I’ve experienced aren’t constructed in this way. That might be to its detriment, because it cannot reconstruct itself in minutes to suit my mood, but I prefer it that way. Paranoia leads me to believe that a digital space that is so subtly refining itself to suit me (a me from the past, alas) takes away my agency to decide what I really do and don’t want to see. The thing is, I don’t necessarily want to be walled into my own silo.
With the move towards augmented and virtual reality, perhaps (be)holding the real, material object is still desirable? There’s some amount of logic there. I know I’ll still be buying published books.