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Reading and the Screen

Interesting op ed blog in The New York Times today, “Reader Beware,” that expounds on the perils of reading on the electronic screen, from the Kindle to the desktop. It takes its lead from a longer article in The Atlantic. In fact, the writers propounding this position seem to be claiming that not only is reading on the screen different in degree from what we do when confronted with a printed page, but different in kind. And more: that to some degree it’s not reading, really, at all.


First, I should confess that I had knee surgery yesterday and was reading the Times on my laptop, using the cool new New York Times Reader. Given my druthers, it’s true, I much prefer the print edition of the daily paper with a cup of coffee by my side. But that’s not always possible. How much am I losing by reading on the screen? Am I contributing to the collapse of my own ability to concentrate, as well as the collapse of our entire culture?

When I was first writing short stories, I trusted in a mechanical pencil and a spiral notebook. Only when a draft was complete, including several early revisions, did I commit the story to a typewriter. (No time to explain–take my word for it.) Those were the bad old days, when after a writer sent a story off and, usually, it came back several months later mangled, he or she was forced to type it out from scratch. It’s been twenty years or more since I began composing on the word processor. I do think it’s affected the compositional process–certainly revision is easier–as well as storage and printing clean copies.

I’m not so sure it’s changed the way my brain works or the way I read. More recently, of course, The Kenyon Review has begun accepting submissions online. So most of the time I am now reading those submissions on a screen. What has been the effect on what we publish? I guess that’s for others to say.

As I wrote in an earlier post, I am also now, occasionally, reading books on the Kindle, something I wouldn’t do on a conventional computer screen. And I enjoy it. On my daily commute to Gambier, OH, I am listening to recorded books as well, especially “non-literary” ones that I wouldn’t otherwise have the chance to enjoy.

Aside from the ease and convenience that these new technologies provide, perhaps the biggest change for readers, at least from my point of view, is the chance to share. Writing this blog is an obvious instance. But many of us–you, I’m sure–receive links to interesting pieces from friends. Sometimes that can be annoying or overwhelming, but the delete key is no great challenge.

My point here is that while reading and writing are and must always be essentially solitary activities, there is a complex literary community growing around this world. We share ideas, and jokes of course, across the internet. And there’s no clear downside to this, or am I missing something?

Obviously, the electronic screen does also increase the amount of spam, in the largest sense of images and data being thrown at us unwittingly. And younger people are certainly reading in different ways. Screens are their default. I think it will take some time to understand just what that means.

Reading is good, seems to me, and I’m happy that people are doing it, no matter the medium.