New York Times on Reading

Quick weekend link to a New York Times piece debating the merits of reading books vs reading online:

As teenagers’ scores on standardized reading tests have declined or stagnated, some argue that the hours spent prowling the Internet are the enemy of reading — diminishing literacy, wrecking attention spans and destroying a precious common culture that exists only through the reading of books.

But others say the Internet has created a new kind of reading, one that schools and society should not discount. The Web inspires a teenager like Nadia, who might otherwise spend most of her leisure time watching television, to read and write.

Some interesting discussion, but the piece fails to address that fundamental question about the definition of a book. Whilst it teases out some interesting web-based writing (such as fanfiction.net), those examples and those used as contrasts (Harry Potter and Ayn Rand) are by no means definitive. Indeed, there’s some muddle-headed thinking which seems to argue for a weirdly fundamentalist media specificity:

Clearly, reading in print and on the Internet are different. On paper, text has a predetermined beginning, middle and end, where readers focus for a sustained period on one author’s vision. On the Internet, readers skate through cyberspace at will and, in effect, compose their own beginnings, middles and ends.

Clearly, it’s not that clear. After all, the article itself has a predetermined text, and whilst I’m happy commenting on it, I’m not imposing my own beginning, middle or end. I’m reading the article online, but I’m assuming it’s the same in the dead tree version of the paper. 

The internet does not make demands of its content – it *can* be understood as a medium for transmission – and there’s no reason why what the article’s author thinks of as books can’t be distributed on line.

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