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Reading on a Kindle or iPad is NOT Reading … So, They Say … Maybe it is Better

Do e-books spell the demise of "real reading"?

Reading on a Kindle or iPad is NOT Reading ... So, They Say ... Maybe it is Better

In his book, I Can Read With My Eyes Shut! Dr. Seuss says, "The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you'll go." Although he wrote in the print medium, did Dr. Seuss mean that we should only read printed books or that we should read, period? Some psychologists, writers, and futurists, decry that the act of reading from the printed page is rapidly disappearing and the figures support that assertion. A recent (July 18, 2010) Los Angeles Times article reprinted a table from PricewaterhouseCoopers showing that while printed book sales peaked in 2007 and are now slowly declining, e-book sales have mushroomed from 500 million in 2008 to a predicted 1.6 billion in 2010. Granted, printed books are expected to top 31.5 billion in 2010 so we are not seeing their demise any time soon. However, more and more people are using e-book readers. In the first quarter of 2010, 1.43 million e-book readers were shipped worldwide and the iPad sold 500,000 in the first week alone and three million in 80 days. DigiTimes estimates that 11 million e-book readers will be sold this year alone.

While all reports indicate that daily media use among children and teens is mushrooming, reading printed books has remained constant at about 25 minutes per day. The average reader reads about 300 words per minute which translates to about 7,500 words per day. That same teenager, however, spends upwards of two hours per day online, sends and receives about 300 texts messages, and spends much of the day typing and reading "words." Granted, I will admit that "r u goin 2 j's pty 2nite?" is not necessarily Shakespeare, but it is writing words and the recipient is reading words. The National Assessment Educational Progress reported that students who read for "pleasure" almost every day had higher reading scores than those who said they hardly ever read for pleasure. And for a teenager, there is no greater pleasure than "reading" Facebook posts, text messages, and online websites.

At this point I would venture to guess that you are shaking your head in astonishment at my audacity to assert that any type of reading is reading. Nicholas Carr, in his book "The Shallows" insists that reading a printed book is drastically different than reading an e-book because the e-book encourages you to click on links and jump around while the printed book keeps you anchored to the text and the author's message and theme. He also insists, as he did in his Atlantic Monthly article "Is Google Making Us Stupid," that this type of nonlinear reading is changing our brain and moving us away from deep thought into more shallow thinking. And he warns us that soon reading will be a community affair with links to online discussions about books and students discussing books on the fly as they read them through IM, texting, and social networking. I plan to write a review of Carr's fascinating book sometime later this summer (ahh ... a professor's life ... I live for the summer when I can actually read something), but his arguments are quite compelling and he bolsters them with neuropsychology research on brain development and changes.

But should the act of reading be confined to an individualized, sedentary, solitary activity? As C.S. Lewis said, "We read to know we are not alone." What better way to read a book than to be able to share it as we are reading? Isn't that what book clubs are all about? The difference here is that people will be able to read what other people think about the book as they read. They can even discuss the book live while they are reading it, not when they have read the final page. I don't know about you, but when we watch movies at home we often pause them to discuss what just happened and what it might mean. Often, one of us will realize that we missed something important and spending a few minutes talking about the plot helps to understand the rest of the movie. How is this different from making a short jump from reading to an online discussion of the book and then back again to read some more?

Carr argues that the "words of books are extracted from the printed page and embedded in the computer's ecology of interruption technologies." Of course this is true. Just watch a teenager check Facebook and send and answers texts while she reads her schoolwork. But is it affecting her comprehension? Recent research by Laura Bowman and her colleagues challenges Carr's assumption that interruptive technologies are harming our level of understanding. In Bowman's study, students were asked to read a section in a psychology textbook and then take a test on the material. One group simply read and took the test. A second group started reading and then was interrupted by getting several instant messages on the screen to which they were required to respond. Which group took longer to read and complete the test? The interrupted group. Which group performed better on the test? That's a trick question: they both did equally well! In our lab we have looked at the impact of interruptions by bombarding students with text messages during a lecture. Our studies show that unless we interrupt them constantly they comprehend the lecture just as well as those who are not interrupted. And even then, the students with greater metacognitive skills who decide to wait to respond to our texts until an "appropriate" time do substantially better than those who self-interrupt immediately.

I bought a Kindle when they first came out in late 2007 (yes, that's right, the Kindle is only two and a half years old!) and delighted in using it on airplane trips instead of bringing along two or three paperback books. And better yet, I could read my book on my iPhone and my laptop with the Kindle app whenever I had a few spare moments (and the app syncs with the Kindle so that I am always on the right page). At first I got curious stares and then questions about how it worked and why I liked it. Recently, however, I noticed that more and more people on my plane flights are reading from their Kindles, Nooks, or iPads. I still read printed books voraciously at home and keep my local library in business as I check out about 5 every couple of weeks. I still read my newspaper in the morning in print and not online. After all, isn't it important to get that ink on your fingers? But many teens and young adults get their news online. Are they missing something by not turning the pages one by one? Actually, I think that they benefit by being able to click on embedded links and read more about the topic of the article. I can't do that with my newspaper and find myself reading the same article online just to follow the links. The L.A. Times article that I mentioned earlier had links that took me to fascinating articles on "The Future of Reading", "Milestones in Reading", and even a podcast entitled "How Technology is Changing the Experience of Reading." In addition, many people left comments and began discussions about the articles which led to other sources and more discussions which enhanced my experience and understanding of the issues involved.

The bottom line is that we are reading more and, I believe, benefiting more from a nonlinear reading style by being able to click and explore links -- and discovering the material expounded on and presented in multiple formats including podcasts and vodcasts -- and discussing the book (electronically) with others who are doing the same. This is way better than seeing students read the Cliff Notes or not even reading at all. In my home state of California and in Texas, there are major movements from the upper echelons of the government to replace paper textbooks with their online versions. Not only will this save money, but I think that you will see more students reading when they have a few minutes online rather than cramming in all of their reading in the wee hours of the morning and falling asleep on top of the book. There are many ways to bring material into our brains from the outside world and those who reject online materials in favor of only printed matter are fighting a losing battle and, I feel, limiting the minds of the readers.

As Dr. Gary Small, director of the Center on Aging at UCLA and author of iBrain said discussing online reading, "People tend to ask whether this is good or bad. My response is that the tech train is out of the station and it's impossible to stop." The key, I feel, is to find ways to exploit these online texts in teaching our high-tech children, teens, and young adults to re-engage them in the learning process in environments that they find engaging, exciting, and enjoyable.