Day 24 Books and Bytes

Nora Ephron

In all of my online courses I post a list of some of my favorite authors and “reading for fun” book titles.  The list changes each semester, but here’s what is on it now:

  • I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman by Nora Ephron
  • The Boys on the Boat by Daniel James Brown
  • Me Before You by JoJo Moyes
  • The Writing Life by Annie Dillard
  • Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
  • For the Love by Jen Hatmaker
  • Fugitive Days by Bill Ayers
  • One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp
  • Dog is my Co-Pilot by Claudia Kawczynska
  • And they All Sang by Studs Terkel

I often discuss the purpose of reading with my students and ask why, what and how they read text. Are students coming to the text for pleasure reading or academic reading?  There is a marked difference. Pleasure reading rarely entails note-taking whereas academic reading should involve identifying the expertise of the author and knowing the book’s likely audience. Being aware of the text’s goals, topic, main thesis, and general structure is also important. To get the most out of an academic or professional text, most students take notes, highlight key passages, jot down how to apply an idea to an example, and note important phrases or quotations.

I do not require e-books in my online courses, but strike a balance between including traditional textbooks, a paperback novel and the mass material posted in the course.  Anecdotally, my students have told me they prefer a “real” textbook and feel most comfortable having that form of text in hand for their academic reading. They prefer not to download their college textbooks onto a Kindle, smartphone or other device.


According to Maria Konnikova in “Being a Better Online Reader,” she believes as we engage in online reading, the physiology of the reading process itself shifts; we don’t read the same way online as we do on paper. Anne Mangen, a professor at the National Centre for Reading Education and Research at the University of Stavanger, in Norway, points out that reading is always an interaction between a person and a technology, be it a computer or an e-reader or even a bound book.  The contrast of pixels, the layout of the words, the concept of scrolling versus turning a page, the physicality of a book versus the ephemerality of a screen, the ability to hyperlink and move from source to source within seconds online—all these variables translate into a different reading experience.

Konnikova continues, the screen, for one, seems to encourage more skimming behavior: when we scroll, we tend to read more quickly (and less deeply) than when we move sequentially from page to page. Online, the tendency is compounded as a way of coping with an overload of information. There are so many possible sources, so many pages, so many alternatives to any article or book or document that we read more quickly to compensate. When Ziming Liu, a professor at San Jose State University whose research centers on digital reading and the use of e-books, conducted a review of studies that compared print and digital reading experiences, he found that several things changed. On screen, people tended to browse and scan, to look for keywords, and to read in a less linear, more selective fashion. On the page, they tended to concentrate more on following the text. Skimming, Liu concluded, had become the new reading: the more we read online, the more likely we were to move quickly, without stopping to ponder any one thought.

Mary Dyson, a psychologist at the University of Reading who studies how we perceive and interact with typography and design online and in print, has found that the layout of a text can have a significant effect on the reading experience. We read more quickly when lines are longer, but only to a point. When lines are too long, it becomes taxing to move your eyes from the end of one to the start of the next. We read more efficiently when text is arranged in a single column rather than multiple columns or sections. The font, color, and size of text can all act in tandem to make our reading experience easier or more difficult. And while these variables surely exist on paper just as they do on-screen, the range of formats and layouts online is far greater than it is in print. Online, you can find yourself transitioning to entirely new layouts from moment to moment, and, each time you do so, your eyes and your reading approach need to adjust. Each adjustment, in turn, takes mental and physical energy.

There is still no longitudinal data about digital reading. Perhaps digital reading isn’t worse so much as different than print reading. Julie Coiro argues that reading on screen may require students to exercise much greater self-control than a physical book. “In reading on paper, you may have to monitor yourself once, to actually pick up the book,” she says. “On the Internet, that monitoring and self-regulation cycle happens again and again. And if you’re the kind of person who’s naturally good at self-monitoring, you don’t have a problem. But if you’re a reader who hasn’t been trained to pay attention, each time you click a link, you’re constructing your own text. And when you’re asked comprehension questions, it’s like you picked up the wrong book.”



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