Kindle, screen reading, and the limits of academic literacy

The other day I was reading a dissertation chapter and I noticed a quote for which the student was still looking for a page reference. On a lark, I copied and pasted the quote into a Google search, and there it was in Google Books. It was a reflexive action for me these days as I have a couple dozen scholarly books on my Kindle and most of them don’t come with page numbers when I cut and paste the quotations. I have to go searching for pages in Google Books by search for the quote. So this started me thinking about how antiquated the citation apparatus is. I know that’s an old story, a familiar complaint. Page number is really an antiquated piece of location data though, right? Especially when really of our articles and most monographs are available digitally and there really could be far easier and more precise forms of location.

But that’s not really what I wanted to write about today. I want to muse on the next thought I had, which was the following. Probably the common objection to the suggestion above is that although scholarship is findable online, it’s not really practical to read it on the screen. This is a viewpoint I’ve heard many times. I’d almost say it is an academic commonplace.

It may be possible to do some light summer reading on a Kindle or browse a webpage but the close reading required of scholarly texts can’t be done there. It’s a viewpoint that might take as evidence some of the research that has been done with students on their ability to retain information from the screen as compared to information on the page. I don’t doubt the claims of either my colleagues or these studies. I’m believe them when they tell me they struggle with reading on the screen. The thing is, if I told you that I struggled with reading on paper, would you say that was a problem with the technology or would you say that I had a reading problem? I assure you the argument would be the latter.

It’s not unreasonable to imagine that reading skills are like writing skills in the sense that they aren’t universal. This is obvious in terms of content where no one is surprised that I can’t read and understand highly technical texts in a discipline distant to my own. As the activity-genre theory folks would argue, you really have to be part of that activity system to do that reading (and writing). But can we extend this argument to shifts in media ecologies? That is, is it the case that the shift from printed book to Kindle, for example, is so significant that one may have the ability to read and understand in print, but not on the screen? Your first inclination may be to say “no,” probably because you are implicitly asserting that the texts are identical. But they are clearly not identical: one is printed; one isn’t. And our colleagues and these studies have all demonstrated that there is a difference.

Some of the complaints about screens have to do with the physical limitations of eyes. I’m certainly not going to argue that we might not continue to develop screens that provide better affordances for human vision. On the other hand, it would be silly to suggest that print cannot create its own eye strain. There’s a reason large print books exist. However many of the complaints about screens have to do with the embodied experience of reading (e.g. the feel of the book, etc.) or the amount of words one can scan on a page. Not surprisingly, the capacities of a human reader plus a Kindle or a website is different from the capacities of a human reader plus a printed book. Being literate in one context is not the same as being “literate” (if that’s still the right word) in the other.

What’s the upshot? Probably that saying you can’t read a scholarly text on a screen or Kindle maybe isn’t just about the technology.

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