How Different are Digital and Print Reading Environments?

For this week’s class we read Sven Birkerts’ “Reading in a Digital Age” about the relationship between novels and the Internet. What started off as an intriguing article quickly became overly concerned with unnecessary analogies and seemingly irrelevant concerns with neuropsychological connections between the “brain” and “mind”.

What really bothered me in the Birkerts article was his views on the different types of reading environments created by novel versus digital readings. Birkerts claims reading a print copy fosters a higher level of concentration from the reader that creates an increased engagement with the text. In opposition to this he posits the digital copy as a text surrounded by distractions that prevent the reader from fully immersing themselves in a narrative. While I can recognize this argument for increased online distractions to a certain extent (considering how many tabs we have open on a web browser at any given time and the potential for participation in multiple online activities at once), I don’t feel Birkerts fully recognizes the reality of a print reading environment. He suggests reading a novel offers less distractions because there is only one text to focus on, however, he seems to ignore the possibilities for external distractions in this reading environment. Depending on where you read there can be any number of potential distractions – libraries and cafes have other occupants to distract your focus, and reading at home involves ignoring pressing household tasks as well as the other people you live with. Also, let’s not forget that some narratives require the use of additional texts, such as translation tools (like a dictionary), or appendices, and especially notes in an annotated edition of a text. These all offer potential distractions from the narrative that complicate Birkerts’ idea of reading environments, suggesting that we are always negotiating other stimuli and can never be fully invested in a text, regardless of reading a print or digital copy.

Furthermore, he uses the Victorian reader as an ideal example of a focused reader who is capable of sitting to read one narrative for an extended period of time, becoming lost in the world of fiction. This is a flawed example since Victorian readers did not read three volume novels in one sitting, as he claims, but often read one volume at a time as they became available through circulating libraries, or read installments of a narrative in monthly newspapers. Birkerts’ supposed ideal reading environment based on the Victorians collapses as more accurate relations of their reading practices are recognized. This means his representations of a reading environment with a high level of reader concentration and engagement is less realistic than he would like to claim.

So if Birkerts’ ideal reading environment is flawed then we can argue for similar levels of distraction and immersion in digital as well as print texts. But I would like to take this thought one step further and suggest narratives of any form (novels, movies, digital texts, video games, etc.) all possess the potential for high levels of reader/viewer engagement. If a narrative is well constructed, with intriguing events and characters, captivating imagery, and an aspect of reader relatability then there is the potential for a reader to become lost in the fictional worlds these narratives create. In this sense, the reading environment has less to do with concentration than the actual content does!

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3 Responses to How Different are Digital and Print Reading Environments?

  1. Pingback: Digital Psychology? | The Tales of John Oliver Hobbes

  2. julie.morrissy says:

    I agree with the issues that Olivia points to in her blog post. Not only is Birkert’s view narrow in the sense that Olivia notes, I also take issue with the implied hierarchy of the reading experience in terms of difference between reading digital and print mediums. Concentrating or immersing oneself in a single text, without the opportunity to easily navigate through a text using alternate mediums, seems to be raised as the desired goal of reading. I would argue that immersion is only one possible goal of reading – there are plenty of equally important others. Further, there are parts of the article where I felt Birkert’s implies that the imagination is better served by physical books. He notes the “exteriority” of the internet, and posits that although we can use online resources to get closer to an experience, we eventually hit a barrier. He gives the example of Joseph O’Neill’s use of Google Earth in his novel Netherland. It seems that Birkerts is implying that the internet produces a barrier to imagination at a certain point. I’m unsure, however, how such barrier operates in one medium and not in the other. Why is the reader assumed to have the imaginative capacity to enter into a fictitious world of a printed novel, but his/her imagination is then capped by the fact that Google Earth doesn’t allow one to see through the window of a bedroom?

    While I think Birkerts has a wonderful way with words, and I am taken in by the essence of his ideas, I think he scapegoats the digital medium for many issues that it simply cannot be blamed for. The reading practices, or imagination of any given individual are not wholly dependant on the medium through once one reads.

  3. cstelman says:

    I very much agree with you here Olivia. Julie, I also agree with your comment, and I find your last point above to be particularly resonating as it encapsulates my own feelings towards Birkerts. While I appreciate Birkerts devotion for “immersed” reading, his perspective seems overly romanticized and unrealistic, making his arguments for the printed text all to easy to discredit (as Olivia has done here).
    Olivia rightly points out that reading a printed novel is often no less distracting than reading digital texts, as most places we read, such as in a café, or even a library, often come with a host of distractions pulling us out of the text.
    This made me think that perhaps digital texts on platforms such as Wikisource, such as our own Social Edition of The Annotated The Tales of John Oliver Hobbes, are actually more effective in creating an environment where the reader is fully immersed than, say, the Victorian three-volume novel. Although social editions come with hyperlinks and footnotes that indeed pull us away from the text, they do so in a way that is curated. So, in an online Social Edition, where ever the reader ends up when they veer away from the text is actually somewhere that contributes to their reading and interpretations effectively, rather than a simple distraction entirely irrelevant from the text at hand. Of course, actual distractions are still possible, but perhaps this more dynamic approach to reading that the Social Edition offers will distract the reader enough in ways that are relevant, and thus prevent irrelevant distractions from happening.

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