Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Needy reading

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?

1 comment:

Amelia Bitely said...

I'm probably in a small and quirky minority, but I find that I am both a more voracious reader and a more thorough reader of data on the Internet than I am of data in print. My problem isn't quantity, either of words read or of time spent engaging with text; I don't miss out on those wonderful moments of discovery (after all, what is surfing Wikipedia but discovering unknown but much-desired items of interest?). My problem is that, as the Wikipedia example indicates, I have no way of affirming to the outside world that I have spent my reading time in a productive fashion.

There's no regulatory system for the Internet, yet; this provides great freedom for users to create their own content, but it also contributes to the mythos that the Internet is a wildlife preserve for the endangered b.s.-er. Wikipedia's quick answers to quick questions are almost too easy--but also considered so worthless that no good teacher worth his/her salt will accept Wikipedia as a source. That may be informing this discussion, as well: the niggling curiosity as to whether the quickly-acquired data is even valuable. What's the consequence of denying the validity of online data simply because it's accessed virtually rather than in the real world? I think that's the crucial thing: "real world." While no one's disputing that the Internet allows people to interact in virtual space, we seem to attribute that virtuality to everything within the space as well as the space itself. Relationships forged online, information obtained, fiction devoured, all exist as second-class relationships/information/fiction. They are, in our strange dichotomy, "unreal."

I've strayed pretty drastically from the topic--that is, the value of a targeted-reading approach to online reading, versus the serendipity of offline reading. What I think I was originally trying to say, though, is that people who are not interested in serendipitous discovery will nonetheless encounter unintended information online. Just as importantly, when we discuss the role of reading online in the human reading experience, we should be careful of how we diminish the Internet--both consciously and unconsciously. Wikipedia may be a feeding ground for a shocking number of b.s.-ers, but it's not their native soil.