A recent article in the New York Times (read it here) asks whether online reading is really reading or whether it is different enough from what used to be called just "reading" to merit special attention in the curriculum. (And by the way, we need a new term to distinguish online reading from just plain old reading and I don't know what it might be. Suggestions?)
The article raises some important questions about changes in reading habits among the young and how those changes might affect brain development, but I was most struck by a comment from the last page of the article, when a young man named Hunter Gaudet explains why online reading is so much better than whatever we're calling the other kind of reading: "In a book, 'they go through a lot of details that aren't really needed,' Hunter said. 'Online just gives you what you need, nothing more or less.'"
I suppose this is true, but Hunter assumes that he is capable of knowing what he really needs, and what if he doesn't? If what he really needs is a discrete piece of information, then he will know when he has acquired that piece of information and he will then stop reading; but what if what he really needs is something more nebulous, like a vicarious experience of joy or terror, a deeper understanding of the human condition, an aesthetic experience aroused by fine writing? How many of us are aware of our deep inner needs and know just where to satisfy them? Often, the satisfaction of a need is the first inkling I have of its existence.
Any needs that can be reduced to an easily digested list of bullet points can probably be satisfied online quickly and efficiently, but what happens when everyone forgets about the existence of the kinds of needs that are not reducible to bullet points? Will anyone know where to look?