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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

On the persistence of print and absorbing information (publishing in the twilight of the printed word and the strangeness of being human)

by John MacBeath Watkins

I've been reading The Shallows, a 2011 book by Nicholas Carr about how the internet is rewiring our brains, and in the midst of this alarmist text on how much shallower we shall become because of the internet, I've found a cause for hope.

You see, the PewResearch Internet Project has found that younger people are more keenly aware of the limitations of the internet then their elders.

I am not a digital native. You might call me an internet immigrant, or even a digital alien. I've come to use the internet quite a lot, but I'm keenly aware that much of what we know isn't there. It's in books, or in peoples' heads.

But on this issue, as on so many others, I find that young folks today are in better agreement with me than my own generational cohort. From the report:

Despite their embrace of technology, 62% of Americans under age 30 agree there is “a lot of useful, important information that is not available on the internet,” compared with 53% of older Americans who believe that. At the same time, 79% of Millennials believe that people without internet access are at a real disadvantage.
I think that's a very realistic assessment. The internet makes it easy to find the information on it, but there's a lot that just isn't there.

And there is also the issue of what you want to read on the screen. In At Random, Bennett Cerf's memoir of his life in the publishing business, he noted that prior to the introduction of television, fiction outsold non-fiction about three to one. After its introduction and subsequent ubiquity, that reversed.

But when I looked at Amazon's list of top-selling e-books recently, there wasn't a non-fiction book in the top 40. The Barnes & Noble list of the top-selling hardcover and paperback books shows five of the top 10 being non-fiction.

It would appear that peoples' reading habits are adapting to the reality of reading things on a screen which can also be used to go on the internet and buy things or roam around the infosphere. It is Carr's contention that silent reading, which invites us into the private contemplation of the information and thinking of the author better than the public performance of reading aloud, has been with us for about a thousand years. Printed books invited us into this quite, private world, while reading on a device connected to the internet invites constant interruption. A text littered with links, GIFs, and videos invites cursory and distracted reading.

But stories were performed by a storyteller or a cast of actors long before silent reading came about. We can immerse ourselves in stories without thinking deeply, let them wash over us and sweep us away without trying to interpret or challenge their thinking. That seems to be the sort of thing we are willing to read on the screen, partly because the experience of being transported into the story makes lower demands on our intellect.

It seems odd that the newest technology is best for the sort of mythopoetic storytelling where we don't consciously absorb information, while books that demand our use of instrumental logic are best read on paper. Mr. Carr has himself noted that while e-books are now about a third of the market for new books, they are only about 12 percent of the sales of his own, somewhat intellectually demanding books.

Perhaps this is only a pause in the twilight of the printed word, until e-publishers work out the interface a little better. But I found when I was reading A Course in General Linguistics on line, I wasn't getting as much out of it as I did when I got a paper copy. The text was not interspersed with links, and the copy I got in book form had the distraction of marginalia, but I found it easier to immerse myself in a text I needed to read critically and contemplatively when it lay before me on paper.

Now, you might think that the young, more adapted to reading on the screen, would simply read more of the sort of short, punchy stories about who was showing side boob at the Oscars and watching cat videos and porn, but according to the Pew study, they are more likely to have read a book in the past year.

Some 43% (of millenials) report reading a book—in any format—on a daily basis, a rate similar to older adults. Overall, 88% of Americans under 30 read a book in the past year, compared with 79% of those age 30 and older. Young adults have caught up to those in their thirties and forties in e-reading, with 37% of adults ages 18-29 reporting that they have read an e-book in the past year.
Interestingly, e-books seem to have caught on with older adults first, perhaps because you can adjust the type size in an e-book.

But for now, e-books seem to have unexpectedly plateaued, and printed books persist.

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