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!