Less Enjoyable Screen Reading and Other Apocalypses

M. Lynx Qualey
May 20, 2013
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Last week, the UK’s National Literacy Trust released results of a survey of 35,000 UK children. Most of the headline-pullouts felt unremarkable (“on-screen reading overtakes reading in print”; “Children say they prefer to read on screen”; “4 out of 10 now own a tablet or a smartphone”).

I was, however, struck by the suggestion that British children who read on screens find reading less enjoyable. Indeed, according to the survey, “Those who read only on-screen are also three times less likely to enjoy reading very much (12% vs 51%) and a third less likely to have a favourite book (59% vs 77%).”

Now, the survey authors are not suggesting causation, that it’s the screens’ fault those kids don’t love reading. In all likelihood, the sort of children who love books reach out to many forms: paper-, audio-, e-. Children who don’t love books…don’t.

Then again, as I thought about it: Maybe reading on a screen really is less enjoyable.

The only sort of research I have is an exploration of my own reading pleasures. It was months ago that excerpts of Rachida Madani’s Tales of a Severed Head, trans. Marilyn Hacker, began appearing online. I read through and posted all of these on my blog:

Jadaliyya: Five Poems from The First Tale

Asymptote: The Second Tale

Guernica: The Second Tale: XV

Words Without Borders: XXIII

The Paris Review: Robyn Creswell on Tales of a Severed Head

The YUP Blog: Rachida Madani’s Tales of a Severed Head

As I did so, I might have recognized Madani’s as accomplished poetry and Hacker’s as excellent translation; I probably noted that Madani adds interestingly to the conversation on what it means to be female/a poet/to speak from the margins/to speak to power. But I couldn’t say that reading any of these excerpts gave me pleasure.

Then, yesterday, I got a paper copy of Tales of a Severed Head in the mail from my friend and ArabLit contributor Amira Abd El-Khalek. I sat down with the book immediately. I was not “away from distractions,” as my two smallest children were jousting with sticks a few feet away. But I didn’t feel the same eternal impatience that wells up when I’m reading on a screen. It was just me and Marilyn Hacker and Rachida Madani (and my two boys warring with sticks), and, as I read Hacker’s introduction, I felt the joy of beautiful words, of recognizing myself in the world.

Of course, I’m not comparing fruit to fruit: Madani’s is a book that’s meant to be read as a whole piece. In one place, I read excerpts and in the others I had the whole project. Yet it has happened to me before.

I can feel pleasure when I read a PDF sent by a cash-strapped publisher; sure. A couple years ago, I read a PDF of Sonallah Ibrahim’s Stealth, trans. Hosam Aboul-ela, and my heart clenched at the end. But I also had a sense that, had I been reading the paper book, away all digital bleeping and flashing, maybe I would’ve cried.

When I read on a screen, the experience changes. I am impatient, full of nervous “multi-tasking” energy, not entirely focused on the sound of the words in front of me.

This is only one apocalyptic vision of the future of writing that’s been gripping me lately. There are others: I like Jaron Lanier’s for pure scariness. Let me mush in some of his words:

I’m quite concerned that in the future someone might not know what author they’re reading. You see that with music….

I was in a cafe this morning where I heard some stuff I was interested in, and nobody could figure out. It was Spotify or one of these … so they knew what stream they were getting, but they didn’t know what music it was.

So in practice you don’t know who the musician is. And I think that’s what could happen with writers. And this is what we celebrate in Wikipedia is pretending that there’s some absolute truth that can be spoken that people can approximate and that the speaker doesn’t matter. … You see the thing decontextualized.

I have sort of resisted putting my music out lately because I know it just turns into these mushes. Without context, what does my music mean? I make very novel sounds, but I don’t see any value in me sharing novel sounds that are decontextualized. Why would I write if people are just going to get weird snippets that are just mushed together and they don’t know the overall position or the history of the writer or anything? What would be the point in that. The day books become mush is the day I stop writing.

I do believe in human resilience, and that we will continue to need words and art and context. Apocalyptic visions are good reminders, though, of what we don’t want to be.

Meanwhile, over at BookBrunch, Michael Bhaskar urges you not to believe the backlash against digital publishing.

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