A review of Baron (2015) Words onscreen

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Baron, Naomi., S. (2015) Words onscreen: the fate of reading in the digital world. New York, Oxford University Press
Professor Baron is Executive Director of the Center for Teaching, Research and Learning World Languages and Culture, at the American University in Washington DC.

She has written an extremely thought provoking book, prompted by a concern that new media for reading and communication might, “alter the very nature of human interaction,” and in particular the way we read.

The book is thorough in its academic rigour, citing a wealth of useful references and documenting her own research into the reading habits and opinions of students in 3 countries.  It is also extremely readable, illustrating points with reflections on her own personal preferences when reading.

In my professional life I read the majority of non-fiction texts on screen (for ease of access, as someone not attached to a university with easy borrowing rights to the library) and have an equal preference for reading real book or e books when reading for pleasure.  I chose to read this book in iBook format on my iPad, prompting self-observation of my reading style in an electronic medium. This book is great to read as a e book, as it has lots of headings and subheadings for navigation, and perfect hyperlinking from page to footnote to reference list and back again. Some people (including Professor Baron) might call this a distraction, but for me it is a welcome and productive diversion, so long as I can find my way back easily to the point in the text I had reached.

Despite this, Professor Baron claims that “navigation is simpler on paper – a point students in my own studies confirmed.”  There is real variation in the quality of academic texts on line, from fixed format PDF files or even scanned documents with the quality of poor photocopies, through to bespoke electronic resources, like Professor Baron’s own book and multi-media sources that go well beyond the printed word.   She herself mentions a new era of “what we might call eBook 2.0” with such consistent quality that soon students may reverse this preference, at least in terms of acessibility.

Professor Baron is concerned that reading onscreen encourages browsing, which is in some way substandard to deeper reading on paper.  She likens it to “driving on cruise control [whereas] print invites stopping” to reflect on deeper meaning.  She is worried that the electronic era is leadng to deficiencies generally in attention and concentration.

For me, concentration when reading has always been an issue, way before the age of computers.  My main distractions are fidgeting and thinking (in the sense that my mind can wonder from the topic to other thoughts)!  As a teenager studying, I set up my desk with the book propped at an angle so I could read and knit at the same time (to stop my fingers wandering) and listened to classical music on the radio so as to tune out the inner voice of my thoughts).  Advising students nowadays on effective study skills, there are a number of strategies to help maintain focus, not least to pace oneself and read in manageable chunks.  A good e book can help with this, as the running countdown of “pages left in the chapter” at the base of the screen gives one an incentive to keep going.  Reflective thinking at the end of each convenient break is crucial, whether reading on screen or on paper, as is previewing what might be coming up next.

Professor Baron claims that comprehension  if  “reading when scrolling” is worse that for reading in print (I need to follow up the reference to that research – but later!).  She seems to think that using the “FIND” button is somehow cheating, encouraging students to read selectively rather than the whole article.  Yet, this is a strategy that is essential for a busy researcher, an aid to critical thinking (how much evidence is there for this point of view?) and also a boon for students with dyslexia, for instance, who struggle to read dense academic texts.

Luckily, Professor Baron is not so old-fashioned as to think “smart search techniques” are not worthwhile for the modern student.  Teaching techniques for “meaningful reading on screen” are part of her manifesto for the future, along with allowing for readers’ preferences for different media and “respect for ….authorship in any medium.”  She also has an interesting concluding chapter outlining the latest developments in digital media (whilst acknowledging that this is probably already out of date, with the timelapse between writing her book and publishing it, such is the pace of development).

There is one aspect in which I, like Professor Baron, have a preference for printed material.  She calls it “productive happenstance” that occurs with a physical source; the serendipity of discovering something you weren’t looking for or thinking about.  For me, this phenomenon occurs most often when leafing through a newspaper or magazine, which is so different from the sequential format of an online publication, where I easily get bored.

I like the way this book invites us to examine the process of reading.  This is what my research has been all about…and maybe in the fulness of time my own book on the subject will appear, in a lovely electronic format?