This week Scholarly Kitchen contains yet another post that emphasises what we lose when we read digitally, by an author, Karin Wulf, an academic historian, whose writing I usually find enjoyable and well argued. Frankly, I am astonished that academics in the humanities have so little regard for what I can only assume must be their daily digital reading practice.
Someone needs to state the benefits of digital reading for the academic humanities. This is not reading with your feet curled up on the sofa – that’s not what academic humanities is about. No, we are talking about (for literary studies) becoming familiar with a corpus by a writer, let’s say. Baudelaire, in order to create a reasoned response: an essay. I’m not just reading aimlessly, I am reading for a purpose: to create an academically sound essay or article. To be precise, my reading about Baudelaire, or about a topic such as the Enlightenment, would be:
- Formulate a question or questions about the topic (Was Baudelaire a misogynist? When did the Industrial Revolution start? Did democracy exist in Renaissance Italian cities?)
- Read primary texts on the topic or by the author, preferably in a recent annotated edition.
- Read a selection of critical works about the topic.
- Compare and revisit all of the above to make notes for an essay.
The order of the steps above might be the subject of some discussion, but I think we can agree that all those steps are required. My argument is simply that this process becomes so much more effective using digital texts that I could not contemplate doing it any other way! With a fully digital library (comprising all the relevant primary and secondary texts) I can, for example:
- Check all the occurrences of a term, e.g. any references by Baudelaire to Shakespeare. I can do this with one search if I have the entire Baudelaire corpus available. But most libraries don’t provide it! I have a create it for myself, believe it or not, by finding digital collections on the Web, or if they don’t exist, using an e-book text and running searches across several files in a folder.
- Link my notes with my sources. Use hyperlinks to jump to relevant passages in the original.
- Make notes on my e-texts, using Amazon’s excellent Kindle note capability. I can of course write annotations in the margin of a print book. Then I have to give the book back to the library; or I lend the book to someone else. Disaster!
This is such a no-brainer I don’t know why I have to spell it out.
I cannot emphasise enough that what I describe above is not reading for pleasure. I might (or might not) want to do this in print or on a Kindle, but reading for a purpose (above) is a goal I have to achieve in the most efficient way possible. I am describing the kind of reading academics carry out: and that requires digital reading.
I am not a full-time academic, and I don’t have a university library I can access. Nonetheless, I enjoy reading both fiction and non-fiction. I try to take every opportunity to read when and where I can. That means:
- I read a print book, if there is one around. But the print books on my shelf are often 20+ years old and have been replaced by a more up-to-date edition.
- I read on my smartphone if I am travelling for work, because I don’t have the space or the energy to carry books around. (I’m talking War and Peace here, not an Agatha Christie novel). Any reasonable phone these days has enough capacity to hold all of Proust, all of Dickens, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, and that’s just for starters.
- I listen to audio books in the car if I have to drive. Or on a plane if I can’t see straight enough to read.
- When buying a book, I admit that I check what is cheapest. Sometimes the e-book is cheaper, sometimes the print. I’ll buy whatever is cheapest, except for art books (and I have a particular scorn for the poor organisation of art books, but that’s a different post).
So I simply can’t say that “print is a deeper, more focused activity”. That has never been the case, and let’s not romanticize the activity. I would go so far as to say my whole manner of reading digitally has become more questioning, more active. Instead of reading one print book and accepting every sentence as gospel truth, I follow the internet rule of doubt: don’t trust what you read on the internet. Check what other people have said. I no longer read any book, fiction or non-fiction, without seeing what others have said about it. When an author makes a grand statement, I can check! And that represents, I think, a better kind of reading.
So when Karin Wulf states, as only an academic can, that she wishes for “more research on digital reading”, I think in contrast we can already discover quite a bit from our own practice. And let’s not get nostalgic for what was in many ways an inferior activity. Karin Wulf describes the argument of MaryAnne Wolf who “worries about the social and political costs of the scattered attention and the superficial skimming for information that seems to characterize reading in the 21st century”. Well, you could argue that most undergraduate courses in the humanities promoted just that kind of reading back in the pre-digital 20th century. When I studied for an undergraduate degree in English literature, back in the 1970s, we had a course on the English novel, comprising 20 lectures, one per week over two terms. One week was Fielding. One week was Richardson, and one week, memorably, was Dickens. Each week, you would be handed a reading list of around 20 books on each writer. What kind of reading was this curriculum promoting? You could argue that the “superficial skimming” that MaryAnn Wolf and so many others are critical of existed well before the digital age. It was nurtured by the very academics who seem to be so critical of it today.