Reading Books or the Web

The USA’s National Endowment for the Arts has produced a report based on a survey of american reading habits. Respectable blogs, Resource Shelf and Print is Dead included, have been giving its conclusions more weight than the report deserves. The surveys on which the report is based, do not attempt to measure the massive growth in consumer and educational use of the web, and employ a definition of ‘reading’ which seems to presuppose that the only form of reading worth measuring is the reading of (printed) books. No serious consideration is given to a contemporary understanding of ‘literacy’, which now includes using the web as a reading and information-giving resource. The researchers were continuing a questionaire-based survey which was probably poorly formulated when it was first conducted in 2004. Too much attention is given to TV, not nearly enough to the web, and to the extent to which web interactions are literary.

If we want to understand the reading habits of today we have to do so in the context of the reading teens do on the web (not just email and blogs, but eBay, Facebook, Google and even YouTube, where comments and tags are crucial to navigation). Most web interaction is heavily reading-impregnated.

The pedestrian quality of the report is rather betrayed by this excerpt:

Opinions aside, there is a shortage of scientific research on the effects of
screen reading—not only on long-term patterns of news consumption, but more
importantly, on the development of young minds and young readers. (A good
research question is whether the hyperlinks, pop-up windows, and other extra-
textual features of screen reading can sharpen a child’s ability to perform sus-
tained reading, or whether they impose unhelpful distractions.) Some of the
difficulty stems from the constantly evolving nature of information technology…
(To Read or Not to Read p53)

Perhaps the person who wrote this sentence had a premonition that their report had missed the key issues. [It is news to me that a hyperlink is an ‘extra-textual’ feature. Nothing about the web is more deeply textual than the links of which it is composed]. Reading has been moving to the web since 1994 and more research needs to be done on what cultural and educational issues that poses. But not by the team that have produced the NEA report.

One thought on “Reading Books or the Web

  1. I had the same feeling about the report, obviously missing the point that the functions reading fulfills are far more complex than considered.However the report gathers interesting data, on areas where some metrics can be used.To be used — read — with an educated and critical mind, in my opinion, but still worth considering.As for hyperlinks, a splendid answer is provided in Dan Collier’s Portfolio Typographical Links. (Thanks to the always intuitive Affordance – fr)

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