Changing Reading Habits in the Humanities

Over the past eight or so years there has been a push by educators and school administrators to have students in both k-12 and higher education use e-readers to obtain relevant scholarship and advance their educational careers. Some have argued that e-readers are better suited for so-called “digital natives” that are more comfortable processing information through digital technology than print technology. Others argue that devices like the Amazon Kindle ostensibly provide access to thousands of titles that are not always readily available at a local public or university library (although I would argue that obtaining access to a piece of scholarship is not the same as reading it. The world is full of unread books). This second point is particularly important for humanities students who spend countless hours reading works of literature, philosophy, and history.

A recent thought-provoking essay from American University linguistics professor Naomi S. Baron in The Chronicle of Higher Education, however, turns this logic on its head by suggesting that changing reading habits in the humanities actually threaten the future of the entire discipline. She argues that e-reading–the move from print books to digital devices for reading–“further complicate[s] our struggle to engage students in serious text-based inquiry.”

To wit:

For some years, the amount of reading we assign university students has been shrinking. A book a week is now at best four or five for the semester; volumes give way to chapters or articles. Our motivation is often a last-ditch attempt to get students to actually read what’s on the syllabus. Other factors include the spiraling cost of textbooks and copyright limitations on how much we may post digitally.

Are students even reading Milton or Thucydides or Wittgenstein these days? More fundamentally, are they studying the humanities, which are based on long-form reading? . . . I contend that the shift from reading in print to reading on digital devices is further reducing students’ pursuit of work in the humanities. Students (and the rest of us) have been reading on computers for many years. Besides searching for web pages, we’ve grown accustomed to reading journal articles online and mining documents in digital archives. However, with the coming of e-readers, tablets, and smartphones, reading styles underwent a sea change.

The bottom line is that while digital devices may be fine for reading that we don’t intend to muse over or reread, text that requires what’s been called “deep reading” is nearly always better done in print . . . Digital reading also encourages distraction and invites multitasking . . . Readings in the humanities tend to be lengthy, intellectually weighty, or both. The challenge of digital reading for the humanities is that screens—particularly those on devices with Internet connections—undermine our encounters with meaty texts. These devices weren’t designed for focused concentration, reading slowly, pausing to argue virtually with the author, or rereading. Rather, they are information and communication machines, best used for searching and skimming—not scrutinizing.

In sum, Baron suggests that the loss of close reading/long-form reading is detrimental to humanistic inquiry. Facing the twin challenges of an increasingly digital world and a society that has fetishized utility and practicality in education, humanists have cut down the amount of required reading for their classes while at the same time called for an increased usage of e-readers to obtain and learn about humanities scholarship.

Is it okay for humanists to cut down on the amount of reading they do? What medium is best for reading humanities scholarship?

In my opinion, close reading/long-form reading is necessary for all humanities scholars, even if they’re interested in using quantitative methods that utilize what Stanford University English professor Franco Moretti describes as “distant reading.” Everyone needs a basic understanding of noteworthy works in literature, philosophy, history, etc. etc. and that requires at least some sort of close reading.

When it comes to the best medium for reading humanities scholarship, I think the design of the medium is crucial. Most websites (including blogs on WordPress) don’t lend themselves for long, concentrated reading that exceeds more than 1,000 or 1,500 words. That number is even smaller for reading on a mobile device. Although I don’t prefer to read on an Amazon Kindle, those devices can help readers concentrate for longer periods of time than with a digital computer or phone screen, so I don’t find myself as dismissive of e-readers as Baron.

For my own studies I rely on print books for long-form reading. I find that print books are easier on my eyes and help me concentrate better on the material I am reading. I do a lot of reading online and on my mobile phone, but most of that reading consists of blog posts, news articles, opinion pieces, and other short-ish essays. When I read professional articles or books, I prefer print. I would also argue that research via digital archives, while extremely helpful and convenient, cannot fully replace the act of actually going to a brick-and-mortar library and/or archives and having an actual historical artifact in your hands (it’s also important to point out that the vast majority of historical artifacts are not digitized).

What are your thoughts? What is the place of reading in the humanities today, and what medium do you prefer for your own reading?

Cheers

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2 responses

  1. I’ve gotten to where I can read online done but still much prefer paper copies. I like to write in my books and quickly flip back to pages etc. just wish books weren’t so costly!

    1. I agree with all your comments, although I’ve observed that electronic copies of many books can be just as expensive if not more expensive that the paper copy!

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