NA IMPRENSA INTERNACIONAL > TECNOLOGIA E LEITURA
The Digital World Demands a New Mode of Reading
Por Jennifer Howard [The Chronicle of Higher Education, 8/8/12]
Anyone living even a moderately wired life has heard the complaints: We can't concentrate the way we used to, before the Internet and its temptations came along to distract us. We used to get lost in books; now we get lost in the digital surf.
Alan Jacobs will be either an inspiration or a rebuke to those who feel that technology has ruined them as serious readers. A professor of English at Wheaton College, in Illinois, he spends plenty of time online. He's active on Twitter and blogs regularly for The Atlantic. But he reads more now than he ever has.
"Basically, I read all the time," he says via e-mail. "I read in the morning, read in the evening, read at suppertime. I read before bed. I read in chairs and on sofas and in line at the coffee shop. I read blog posts and periodicals and science fiction and literary fiction and poetry and drama. Also comic books and graphic novels. For the last couple of years I've been reading more about the history of technology than anything else, I suppose. All this in addition to the reading I do for my work: classes to teach and books to write."
The owner of a Kindle and an iPad, Mr. Jacobs feels he reads more now because of technology, not in spite of it. "Some of that, I think, is Kindles and iPads allowing me to have so much to read at my fingertips," he says. "Pre e-reading, I watched more TV because if there wasn't something I wanted to read near to hand, I would just pick up the remote."
Mr. Jacobs has no idea what's on TV or playing at the cinema anymore. "All of a sudden, my Twitter feed is full of references to Channing Tatum. Who's Channing Tatum? I'm too busy reading to find out." (Mr. Tatum is a 32-year-old actor who recently appeared in the movies 21 Jump Street and Magic Mike, which draws on his early experience as a male stripper.)
As Mr. Jacobs recounts in his book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction (Oxford University Press, 2011), he used to worry he was losing his ability to focus on a text. Unexpectedly, getting a Kindle helped him refocus because it was set up to enable only reading, not Internet surfing or e-mail checking. Still, he's a little concerned about the possibly pernicious effects of the iPad. "It's too easy to check Twitter," he says.
Timothy Burke, a professor of history at Swarthmore College, assigned Mr. Jacobs's book last year in his course on the history of reading. Students loved it, he says, noting that as a group Swarthmore students tend to be book lovers.
Mr. Burke has noticed some changes in his own reading habits over the last 20 years. Some he ascribes to accumulated life experience: One reads differently at 47 than one does at 17. But technology has had some effect as well. "My patience for very-long-form reading is definitely evaporating a bit because I do a tremendous amount of reading online," Mr. Burke says. "If I'm going to read a long thing online, it had better be worth it."
He uses his iPad mostly for recreational reading. "My big problem is really digital-rights management," Mr. Burke says, referring to technology that electronic publishers and the makers of e-readers often add to control copyrighted digital content. He doesn't like the idea that he might not be able to copy portions of a book and that, "at some future date, the publisher or e-seller might choose to yank back my copy." Mr. Burke would rather buy print copies of books he'll likely refer to again.
As a historian, Mr. Burke takes a long view of his and society's changing reading habits. He points out that at least as far back as Socrates, people have been debating how and how much to read. And until the 18th century, reading was mostly a social practice, with people reading out loud to one another.
The fragmented, eclectic, roving kind of reading we tend to do on the Internet reminds Mr. Burke of "miscellanies"-random samplings of texts that early modern printers used to assemble from the leftovers of printing jobs. A miscellany might serve up bits of folklore or novels, poetry advice to gentlemen, maybe some natural history or travelogue-not exactly the stuff of sustained long-form reading.
For some contemporary readers, short-form reading rules. Catherine Prendergast, a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, agrees that "we've always been trying to get away from distraction." For her and her students, though, technology isn't the big culprit. "Our lives have become more complex for economic reasons," she says. Students often have to work multiple jobs to cover college costs, and their professors are balancing many obligations. Much of Ms. Prendergast's reading has moved online, although she still enjoys working with paper in her archival research. "I spend a lot of time reading very short missives," she says. "I think I redefined 'leisure' where 'leisure' is reading Facebook and Twitter and not reading novels anymore."
This summer, on vacation, she did pick up a print book. "Someone left a John Grisham novel in the kitchen of the place I'm renting," she says.
Just how profound a shift in reading habits are we collectively experiencing?
Maryanne Wolf, director of Tufts University's Center for Reading and Language Research, is an avid reader and prominent researcher who studies how we acquire and use language. She explores the subject in her book Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain (HarperCollins, 2007).
In an e-mail interview, she describes the letters she received after the book came out. "Professors of English described students who no longer wanted to or even could read 19th-century prose because of the complexity of the syntax," she says. "The point is that we are all changing-not just our students-and that requires both a vigilance and a certain new form of discipline that could easily disappear in all of us."
Ms. Wolf tried an experiment with herself. She decided to reread an old favorite, Hermann Hesse's novel Magister Ludi, to see whether she could enjoy it as she once did. She had trouble slowing herself down enough to appreciate the syntax. "I was like everyone else in my impatience," she says.
She eventually did recover her "older reading self" and was able to enjoy the book again. But the experience, she says, "underscored for me how quickly we could lose our desire to truly grapple with more demanding texts, in an age when we want everything immediately provided for us."