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Building the “Bi-­literate Brain”

Digital reading is here to stay. No one, obviously, is calling to turn back the clock. One need only browse the URL-­laden endnotes of this briefing to see how even a digital skeptic like me has become dependent on screen-­based reading. The key question, as noted at the beginning of this briefing, then becomes, How do we, as librarians, publishers, and software creators, work to preserve reading in all its richness in the digital age?

To start with, we must avoid the intellectual trap that technology blogger Michael Sacasas has termed the “Borg complex”: the belief that newer technologies are, by definition, inherently superior to preexisting ones and that all technological change is inevitable, so arguing about it is pointless.[109] Yale computer scientist David Gelernter made a similar point in an interview with NPR: “It’s not as if books have lost an argument. The problem is there hasn’t been an argument. Technology always gets a free pass. [People] take it for granted that if the technology is new it must be better.”[110]

Obviously, many will make the fair objection that technology, especially in the case of the e-book, has not received a “free pass.” If there wasn’t a robust debate over technology and the nature of reading, this briefing wouldn’t exist. Yet when you step back and take a broader view of the history of technology, Gelernter has a point. For all their eloquence and the favorable reception their arguments receive in certain circles, it is obvious that technology critics and analysts such as Mumford, McLuhan, and Postman have had a negligible impact. To the extent that digital reading skeptics such as Carr and Baron have influenced the current reversion to print as a preferred format for long-­form linear reading, it is because their arguments have expressed what many contemporary readers have themselves experienced in the digital environment.

This continued preference for print for the linear mode of reading is so widespread and deeply felt that it seems unfair to dismiss it merely as a vestigial cultural construct. Even if it is cultural in origin, surely the very fact of its depth and breadth might indicate that there are good reasons for its prevalence. As Gelernter notes, part of the reason the print codex retains so much of its popularity is its simple, elegant, user-­friendly nature: “‘It’s an inspiration of the very first order. It’s made to fit human hands and human eyes and human laps in the way that computers are not,’ he says, wondering aloud why some are in such a rush to discard a technology that has endured for centuries.”[111] Even assuming that digital reading devices can one day truly mimic all the features that made the print codex such a beloved, enduring technology, would doing so not become, in part, simply an exercise in reinventing the wheel?

This widely held desire to preserve the ability for deep linear reading has manifested itself in several ways. One notable development is the rise of what’s been called the “Slow Reading Movement.” A September 2014 Wall Street Journal profile offered this useful definition of slow reading: “Slow reading means a return to a continuous, linear pattern, in a quiet environment free of distractions. Advocates recommend setting aside at least 30 to 45 minutes in a comfortable chair far from cell-­phones and computers. Some suggest scheduling time like an exercise session. Many recommend taking occasional notes to deepen engagement with the text.”[112]

The idea of slow reading has been around for several years. Maura Kelly, writing for The Atlantic, issued this March 2012 call for a “Slow Books Movement” along remarkably similar lines:

Aim for 30 minutes a day. You can squeeze in that half hour pretty easily if only, during your free moments—­whenever you find yourself automatically switching on that boob tube, or firing up your laptop to check your favorite site, or scanning Twitter for something to pass the time—­you pick up a meaningful work of literature. Reach for your e-reader, if you like. The Slow Books movement won’t stand opposed to technology on purely nostalgic or aesthetic grounds. (Kindles et al. make books like War and Peace less heavy, not less substantive, and also ensure you’ll never lose your place.)[113]

Noteworthy in Kelly’s description is that she considers dedicated e-readers to be suitable tools for deep linear reading as well as print. This point is also noted in the Wall Street Journal piece: “Some hard-­core proponents say printed books are best, in part because they’re more visible around the house and serve as a reminder to read. But most slow readers say e-readers and tablets are just fine, particularly if they’re disconnected from the Internet.”[114] As Pew’s Rainie puts it, “Our data are very clear that there is a class of Americans who just can’t get enough books, and if they can’t be with the format they love, they love the format they’re with.”[115]

This observation is important in several ways. For one thing, should the Slow Reading Movement become widespread enough, it could serve as a lifeline for the dedicated e-reading device, allowing it to retain some degree of market share and cultural traction. More profoundly, perhaps, it suggests that digital devices are suitable for deep linear reading when properly designed and when the user is enabled, and willing, to avoid distractions. The problem, as we have seen, is that most digital devices are seemingly engineered to foster distraction, to seize “our attention only to scatter it,” in Carr’s words.[116]

Another factor to keep in mind regarding the Slow Reading Movement is that it seems very much a middle-­class bourgeois bohemian phenomenon. As such, it is a product of what Northwestern University sociologist Wendy Griswold has described as “a self-­perpetuating minority that I have called the reading class.”[117] The emerging outlines of such a class are already visible in the data from Pew and others. It disproportionately comprises such elements as college graduates, young adults, and women.

On the one hand, this makes it difficult to determine how much of a societal impact this movement in support of deep linear reading will have in the face of the tremendous growth of the digital information environment. For example, literary reading, according to the National Endowment for the Arts, has fallen to the lowest level ever recorded, with just 43 percent of adults in 2015 having read at least one piece of literature in the last year. The figure was 57 percent in 1982, when this question was first surveyed. Sixty-­eight percent of those with a graduate education were literary readers in 2015 versus only 30 percent of those with a high school diploma.[118]

On the other hand, the “reading” class has enabled book reading to remain relatively stable in the last few years in the face of an ever-­proliferating variety of digital entertainment options. In Rainie’s words, “With so many ways people can allocate their time now, I think the surprising thing for us is that books are holding their own.”[119]

Slow readers are disproportionate users of libraries, heavy purchasers of books in both print and electronic formats, and the key hope for maintaining some notable form of dedicated e-reader market. As such, librarians, publishers, and e-reader designers would do well to be aware of this movement and take the preferences of its members into account.

At heart, the Slow Reading Movement is a spontaneous, grassroots effort to preserve what Wolf has called the “bi-­literate brain,” one equally conversant in both digital tabular reading and long-­form linear reading. Wolf briefly explained to the Washington Post what this would entail: “We can’t turn back. . . . We should be simultaneously reading to children from books, giving them print, helping them learn this slower mode, and at the same time steadily increasing their immersion into the technological, digital age. It’s both. We have to ask the question: What do we want to preserve?”[120]

In an interview with The New Yorker, Wolf expressed her confidence that, in The New Yorker’s words, “we can learn to navigate online reading just as deeply as we once did print—­if we go about it with the necessary thoughtfulness.”[121] The piece goes on to describe her efforts to implement this vision of a biliterate brain: “The same plasticity that allows us to form a reading circuit to begin with, and short-­circuit the development of deep reading if we allow it, also allows us to learn how to duplicate deep reading in a new environment. . . . We cannot go backwards. As children move more toward an immersion in digital media, we have to figure out ways to read deeply there.”[122]

Ultimately, this vision of a biliterate future, combining print and digital in a way that enables and integrates the best features of both, enabling both linear and tabular reading, is what all of us involved in reading need to work toward. In practice, for the foreseeable future, this means ensuring a continued place for the print codex in the digital age.

This recommendation may come as a bit of a surprise in light of the preceding passages. After all, as we’ve seen, the Slow Reading Movement is very much in favor of the Kindle and similar e-reading devices, while a world-­renowned expert on reading and neuroplasticity such as Wolf firmly believes that we can discover how to make linear reading viable in the digital realm. These factors suggest that print as a format is not necessarily indispensable to long-­form linear reading.

It is true, as we have also seen, that the print/linear versus digital/tabular framework is far from precise. Obviously, a great deal of tabular reading has been, and continues to be, done in print format, and it is not impossible to engage in linear reading on a digital device, especially a dedicated e-reader. Another key factor involves differences among types of literature. Genre fiction, for example, seems much better suited to e-reading than do monographs in history or philosophy. There are also differences among academic disciplines, with the humanities placing far greater emphasis on linear reading of lengthy texts than do the STEM fields. Finally, it is important to keep in mind individual preferences. The current reading environment is not a one-­size-­fits-­all situation.

Having taken these factors into account, the distinction I would make is that the print codex fosters—indeed, is expressly designed to facilitate—the ability to read in depth and at length in a way that most current digital devices do not. No one needs to modify the paper book to make it suitable for long-­form linear reading. The print codex has shaped the way we read, the way we write, and the way we think for centuries. Our society continues to live off of the accumulated cultural capital of print literacy. If we marginalize print, we risk marginalizing an entire way of reading, writing, and thinking that has proved heretofore indispensable to our society, with potentially serious consequences. Just as the advent of the radio did not do away with the record player and television did not end the movie theater, so there is no reason why screen-based reading should spell the end of print reading. Just as the record player and the movie theater continued to fill very specific needs and functions that the radio and television could not, so the print codex serves as an ideal mechanism for in-­depth, distraction-­free linear reading in a way that the most popular digital devices do not. With a substantial body of scholarly and popular opinion now seemingly in agreement on the need for long-­form linear reading and the dangers of digital distraction, discarding a proven centuries-­old technology ideal for meeting those qualifications seems extremely foolhardy.

Instead of being seen as interchangeable, print and digital should be seen as complementary formats for text, both of which are necessary. We need to move beyond the simple dichotomy of print versus digital and understand that both formats are indispensable going forward. Instead of print or digital, let us think of print and digital.