Monday, December 15, 2008

Reader, Beware

In today's NT Times Chris Suellentrop notes (without apparent judgment)
a long essay in The New Atlantis [by] Christine Rosen [who] laments the replacement of print literacy with “screen literacy.” She concludes: “Literacy, the most empowering achievement of our civilization, is to be replaced by a vague and ill-defined screen savvy. The paper book, the tool that built modernity, is to be phased out in favor of fractured, unfixed information. All in the name of progress.” …

Rosen approvingly cites David A. Bell, a Johns Hopkins historian, who wrote in The New Republic in 2005 of the dangers of screen reading: “Bell cautions, ‘You are the master, not some dead author. And that is precisely where the greatest dangers lie, because when reading, you should not be the master’; you should be the student. ‘Surrendering to the organizing logic of a book is, after all, the way one learns,’ he observes.”

Screen reading is fundamentally different from print reading, Rosen argues. “Instead of a reader, you become a user; instead of submitting to an author, you become the master,
I agree that there is a difference between being "the master" and "surrendering to the organizing logic of the book." When I read a book, I want to be the master. I don't want to wait until the author is ready to tell me what he has to say. I want the message immediately, and I want to be able to use the book to find out about the message and to see how the author supports his claims. I'm not willing to sit back and wait for the author to build his argument or trot out his story. I want the information in my way.

Is this different from how people read books in the past? I suspect that I always read books that way—at least when I was reading for information. There are, of course, times when I want to surrender to the author. When I'm reading fiction, I give the author the opportunity to build the narration. I can't do that. Part of the point of fiction is that the author is in charge of the story. But that's completely different from reading for information.

When I have a book that I read for information, the most important part for me is the index. I want to be able to look up a term and find out where the author talks about it. So yes, I want to be the master. I also suspect that being the master results in better comprehension than sitting back and letting the information flow over you. It's called active learning, which is the best way to learn.

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