Sunday, July 27, 2008

Debating Digital Reading

Are we really reading when we're logged on to the web, surfing and social networking to our heart's content?

I don't think so, which is why this piece from the New York Times caught my attention, "
Literacy Debate: Online, R U Really Reading?":


Books are not Nadia Konyk’s thing. Her mother, hoping to entice her, brings them home from the library, but Nadia rarely shows an interest.

Instead, like so many other teenagers, Nadia, 15, is addicted to the Internet. She regularly spends at least six hours a day in front of the computer here in this suburb southwest of Cleveland.

A slender, chatty blonde who wears black-framed plastic glasses, Nadia checks her e-mail and peruses, a social networking site, reading messages or posting updates on her mood. She searches for music videos on YouTube and logs onto Gaia Online, a role-playing site where members fashion alternate identities as cutesy cartoon characters. But she spends most of her time on or, reading and commenting on stories written by other users and based on books, television shows or movies.

Her mother, Deborah Konyk, would prefer that Nadia, who gets A’s and B’s at school, read books for a change. But at this point, Ms. Konyk said, “I’m just pleased that she reads something anymore.”

Children like Nadia lie at the heart of a passionate debate about just what it means to read in the digital age. The discussion is playing out among educational policy makers and reading experts around the world, and within groups like the National Council of Teachers of English and the International Reading Association.

As teenagers’ scores on standardized reading tests have declined or stagnated, some argue that the hours spent prowling the Internet are the enemy of reading — diminishing literacy, wrecking attention spans and destroying a precious common culture that exists only through the reading of books.

But others say the Internet has created a new kind of reading, one that schools and society should not discount. The Web inspires a teenager like Nadia, who might otherwise spend most of her leisure time watching television, to read and write.
Note, first, that I just love the picture!

We have two laptaps at home, plus a desktop downstairs, and someone's always online - so this debate's hitting close to home.

It's a serious question, though, whether digital communications are destroying serious reading.

I'm online now, as a blogger, all day sometimes. I'll read the newspaper in hardcopy and on the web, multi-task with a baseball game or an old movie, while I cruise web checking for the hottest news controversies. A blog post follows shortly thereafter.

But I take time every day to read. I have about three or four books going currently, plus I keep up with print periodicals and scholarly journals. I make it a point to get out and read at Barnes and Noble in the afternoons or on weekends, and I read every evening. For me, the online life enhances and improves my teaching and thinking. Online communications seem to be integral to the life of the mind in the digital age.

I worry about young people, though.

My oldest son's entering 7th grade in September. I've been bugging him for the last month to put down his cell phone and his
iTouch and pick up a book! He's so smart, and does well in school, and, frankly, I'm not one to harangue him all the time. We work hard during the school months, and he's a very disciplined student. He also like to read Manga comics and Harry Potter, so it comes and goes with my boy.

My students are another story. Cell phones are out of control in the classroom. Nowawadays I just stand near students who are texting in class, and I have students who routinely surf the web during lectures. Rare is the studious student, the young scholar who delights in books and holds forth on the latest litarary or political controversies. Oh, sure, I get many who are engaged, but it does seem for too many that books aren't as important as talking on the phone.

The remainder of the Times' piece looks at the debate in educational scholarship.

The question of how to value different kinds of reading is complicated because people read for many reasons. There is the level required of daily life — to follow the instructions in a manual or to analyze a mortgage contract. Then there is a more sophisticated level that opens the doors to elite education and professions. And, of course, people read for entertainment, as well as for intellectual or emotional rewards.
It is perhaps that final purpose that book champions emphasize the most.

“Learning is not to be found on a printout,” David McCullough, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer, said in a commencement address at Boston College in May. “It’s not on call at the touch of the finger. Learning is acquired mainly from books, and most readily from great books.”
I'm inclined to agree with McCullough. So, it's off to read something in hardback.

Oh, no, there's another hot story at
Memeorandum. That book will have to wait!!