Reading, online and off

I came across a New York Times article, via Roger Sutton’s blog on kids and reading online, Literacy Debate: Online, R U Really Reading?

I had to stop and think about this one, because my automatic knee-jerk reaction is, what are you talking about?? You just don’t understand the internet!

And I thought about it. And now I’ve revised my response to, what are you talking about?? You just don’t understand reading!

First of all, not all online reading is the same. Second of all, not all book-based reading is the same, either.

Reading to gain information does not equal reading for the love of story does not equal reading to communicate, respond and interact. There are various points where all of these things intersect, but there seems to be an assumption that one precludes the other, and that one holds more inherent value, which I don’t think is so.

There’s a flawed assumption at the heart of their main example. This fifteen year old girl isn’t interested in reading the books her mom brings home from the library for her. (The important part of that sentence: her mom brings home for her.) When you look at the end of the article, you’ll find that she read a holocaust memoir, and was fascinated. So her mom brought her another holocaust memoir, and guess what? She liked that one too! So she brought her a fantasy novel. Which… didn’t go over. This is not about a lack of sustained interest in print books–it’s a failed attempt at reader’s advisory!

There’s this assumption that kids should be reading fiction–presumably novels of weight and substance. But look at all the talk and studies over the past few years specifically surrounding gender and reading, and how an awful lot of boys in particular will read vast amounts of things like non-fiction, magazines, even comics and manga (all traditional print on paper), and complicated text in video games, yet show no interest in what many teacher insist is REAL reading–fiction, preferably of some substance. If it has an award winner sticker on the front, even better. Maybe we should be talking about how to engage students in storytelling and narratives and fiction… but don’t tell me because they don’t like fiction they don’t like to read.

A ten year old pouring over the non-linear, graphics-heavy Eyewitness book about World War II is reading a print book, decoding text, and doing something akin to browsing wikipedia. Is he studying literature? No, but he’s still reading. Whereas the teenage Twilight fan devouring long, multipart epics on fanfiction.net is reading online, but is much closer to the traditional idea of proper reading than that kid with the Eyewitness book in his hands.

When I was working as a school librarian, it drove me up the wall to hear certain teachers tell their students, “Now, one of your books has to be fiction, and something at a grade four level!” I understand the need of teachers to encourage their students to challenge themselves, but dismissing nonfiction out of hand by saying “they’ll only look at the pictures” and often invalidating the books they had chosen based on their own interests because it wasn’t “at the right reading level,” how is that supposed to encourage reading for pleasure? The only way to become a more confident and capable reader is to read more, and the very best way to do that is to enjoy reading, whether it’s the RSS feed for New Scientist, or book 642 of the Magic Tree House series.

I think what it comes down to for me is an argument that bears a marked similarity to comments I’ve made around graphic novels–don’t confuse the medium with the message. We shouldn’t be making sweeping statements about “is reading the internet bad?” but looking at, what kinds of things are inherently different between the two mediums? (And here we’re heading into Web 2.0 territory…)

Thirdly, is it not highly ironic that the article itself is being passed around and creating dialogue and debate ON THE INTERNET?

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2 responses to “Reading, online and off

  1. Isn’t that what made the Harry Potter “phenom” so great? Kids just took to it all on their own, regardless (and sometimes in spite of) parental wishes.

  2. The picture caption reads, “Their means of text delivery is divided by generation.”

    Their means of text delivery is also divided by gender: research proves over and over that vastly more men than women read newspapers and vastly more women than men read novels. So is that part of this article, where dad probably hasn’t picked up a novel since high school (when he was forced to read one) and mom reads a few articles every day when she’s cleaning up the paper that dad left laying around? No, of course not.

    As for the rest of it, you’re totally right. I love that they never make anything about the mom brings home books that never get read, books that her daughter clearly isn’t interested in (the cognitive leap from concentration camp memoir to YA fantasy escapes me entirely). The daughter spends six dedicated hours a day reading and writing (online, so maybe not all reading, but most of our interactions online are text-based, still), and well, that’s just horrible.

    I think there is a connection here to another article I read recently, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/07/27/AR2008072701440.html?hpid=news-col-blogs, which argues that anything you are required to do loses value, while things that you do by choice retain intrinsic benefit.

    I agree with the article about the attention span thing, though. But that’s got just as much to do with things like 45 minute classes and 22 minute TV episodes than the Internet. More, probably; that’s where it came from in the first place.

    As for the guy who said, “Learning is acquired mainly from books, and most readily from great books,” not only is he full of shit, he’s also actively discounting an amazing amount of wisdom out there that was never put down on paper. The fact that most of it is by women or people of color is probably just a side benefit. I hope, anyway.

    And “The simplest argument for why children should read in their leisure time is that it makes them better readers,” well, if they did more math in their leisure time, they’d be better at math, wouldn’t they.

    Evidently I feel strongly about this subject.

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