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the Complete Review
the complete review - technology / reading

Words Onscreen

Naomi S. Baron

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To purchase Words Onscreen

Title: Words Onscreen
Author: Naomi S. Baron
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2015
Length: 235 pages
Availability: Words Onscreen - US
Words Onscreen - UK
Words Onscreen - Canada
Words Onscreen - India
  • The Fate of Reading in a Digital World

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Our Assessment:

B : decent overview and starting point in print and/vs. digital reading debate, though too awash with the anecdotal

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Publishers Weekly . 22/12/2014 .
The Scotsman . 9/2/2015 Stuart Kelly
Wall St. Journal . 19/2/2015 Steven Poole

  From the Reviews:
  • "Baronís breezy prose -- written in brief, pithy sections, a structure that owes much to online conventions -- packs much erudition into a lucid, engaging style. Among the many death-of-the-book jeremiads, her case for the ongoing relevance of the printed page stands out for its clarity and common sense." - Publishers Weekly

  • "With short, choppy chapters and sub-chapters, this reads more like an internal academic document than a fully realised argument, and when it becomes polemical it strays into mere hectoring. Yet this does begin a proper debate about the future of reading, even if reading it is chore-ish." - Stuart Kelly, The Scotsman

  • "The book is an engaging history of reading as well as a provocative argument about its future. The author tells many interesting stories about the rise of book reviews, book clubs and magazines. (...) Meanwhile, her worries are somewhat undercut by her own conscientious attention to historical context." - Steven Poole, Wall Street Journal

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Words Onscreen is a fairly wide-ranging look at the differences between reading in print- -- and especially book- -- form, and reading in digital form (i.e. on screens).
       With the rapid spread in recent years of 'e-reading', on dedicated e-readers as well as tablets, as well as the already more entrenched forms of screen-reading -- browsing the internet, texting and messaging, etc. -- the question naturally arises whether we are seeing a inexorable wholesale shift to digital reading, as well as the consequences (in terms of comprehending and working with what we read, for example), and what -- if any -- role print will play in the future. Baron admits that for her purposes -- and, as an academic, she reads a great deal -- her preference is almost always print -- indeed, that she can barely stand reading any longer texts or a novel in digital form. She realizes, however, that she was formed by print -- born in 1946, the digital revolution came well into her life and career -- and therefore closely considers whether younger generations, raised entirely in a digital-accessible environment, might not see and react to things differently.
       Baron considers all aspects of reading, including the evolution of widespread reading -- the spread of literacy, and the changes in what material was read and in what form(at)s. While her focus is on English-language reading -- taking, for example, Richardson's Pamela, "the first English novel", as the starting point for a consideration of the rise and spread of the genre -- she does at least point to other writing/reading systems (in which texts are read right to left, or are ideogram-based, such as Chinese), and suggests some of the consequences of these different ways of reading.
       Baron considers the differences between intensive and extensive reading -- a shifting line, beginning with the early days of reading when relatively few (and mainly religious texts) were available, and these were read intensively, while with the advent of the printing press, and then the mass-production of novels, magazines, and newspapers, more casual and extensive reading became possible. The internet, of course, marks an entirely new level of extensive possibilities -- but, as she notes, tends also towards shallow reading: focusing on shorter texts, scanning rather than comprehensively reading them, etc.
       From the tactile sensations of book-reading to the environmental trade-offs of print versus digital, Baron tries to weigh even the more abstract pluses and minuses. She makes a point of noting that e-reading is often disturbed by distractions available to us on our electronic devices -- especially internet-connected tablets -- and takes a closer look at claims of multi-tasking not diminishing the returns on our reading comprehension or pleasure (finding that only a very small part of the population is hardwired for multitasking, and that for most of us the losses -- in comprehension and speed -- far outweigh any perceived benefits).
       Most significant, however, for Baron is what we get out of reading, and she repeatedly notes that for any sort of long-form reading print remains far superior. From spatial memory of where on a page we read something to ability (and/or willingness) to concentrate on a text for an extended period of time, she suggests print beats digital hands down. Only the search-function, and portability (take as many tomes along as you want !), weigh strongly in digital's favor as far as long-form writing goes.
       She covers a great deal of territory and brings up many good points and arguments, considering what factors should be considered in any debate about reading and digital and/vs. print. Two aspects of the book, however, remain problematic. One is that she clearly comes into the debate entirely in the print camp. She's forthright about this, and seems willing to consider the arguments in favor of digital, as well as to recognize that potentially readers who grow up in a digital environment -- and it is debatable whether there are such readers yet, given how ubiquitous print is, despite stray examples of schools that have gone all-digital -- might see things very differently, but it still colors some her writing and argument. So, for example, she describes seeing the Codex Zouche-Nuttall in the original, after having been given a print-book version of it, and describes how superior the experience is to even digital renderings:

Yet however valuable these digital renderings are for the purpose of study, the originals are magical.
       Readers presumably know what she means and feels, but "magical" isn't a really helpful term in explaining what is so special about the original -- and this reliance on the 'aura' of the (physcial) book in general is a bit too pervasive throughout this work.
       Worse is how much of her argument and discussion relies on anecdotal evidence, including many of the studies that she refers to and relies on (including some of her own). She is aware of the weaknesses of many of these and does even make note of that; regarding her discussion of reading comprehension she even sets apart a whole paragraph wondering:
     Which comprehension findings should we trust ? Maybe all of them -- or none. The studies differ in subject age, reading material, testing methodology, and users' prior experience with reading onscreen, making comparison difficult. Another problem may be that comprehension materials were not sufficiently nuanced.
       A dreadful number of the surveys she relies on are self-reported answers (to questions such as: 'How many books did you read last year ?') -- notoriously unreliable.
       Baron herself acknowledges, here and there: "It would be useful to do a real study." My oh my, yes it would -- because there are very few included here that seem at all 'scientific' in even very loose terms. Hard data, about reading and reading comprehension, is difficult to find (and much of the best of it, collected by Amazon and other e-read-sellers who closely track what and how users read, is not made available even to (independent) researchers), but that doesn't necessarily justify relying on anecdotal stuff. Asking readers whether they prefer reading in print over digital is a loaded question, one way or another -- especially when they're Baron's own students -- and self-reporting on this, or almost anything else, surely does not provide anything that might be considered reliable data.
       [As someone who can't recall the last time they answered any sort of poll or survey truthfully -- I answer such question(naire)s strategically, rather than in any way honestly (and inevitably misrepresent myself demographically) -- and who closely tracks every detail about their reading, which makes me understand how far from accurate any off-the-top-of-the-head response to my reading (from the extent of/time devoted to it to any other specifics) would be, any 'information' gathered in this sort of way seems entirely untrustworthy and close to worthless.]
       There are a few useful take-aways from the information Baron has collected, even if some -- such as that readers have greater difficulty with (or rather are less likely to make their way through) long-form-pieces onscreen -- are hardly surprising. Nevertheless, Baron's wide-ranging discussion is interesting in the many aspects of reading it considers and which should be taken into consideration. The conclusions may be dubious -- or are at least often based on dubious pseudo-data -- but she's looking at the right things and asking some of the right questions, if not necessarily in the right way.
       The rapidly changing nature of e-reading-technology also plays a huge role in this: onscreen reading is relatively new in any case, but has changed dramatically in shifting from desktop and laptop onscreen reading to dedicated e-readers, tablets, and mobile phones. Presumably there will be continuing change, with e-reader technology in particular addressing some of the concerns Baron raises.
       Baron's work is a useful reminder of what is at issue and at stake -- and also a helpful reminder to readers that they may be doing themselves a disservice believing they'll read/digest/understand a digital text and take away the same amount of information from it as they would from handling a print-version, or that reading on a tablet with internet and e-mail distractions just a click away is no different from reading a book.

       A few petty complaints too: Baron notes: "By some estimates, Clarissa contains around a million words" -- and then notes in a footnote that "estimates vary" as to the word-count of Richardson's novel. Baron may not like working with digital texts, but surely it would be the simplest thing in the world to download one of the many freely available copies of the text and do a simple electronic word-count, and then present an actual fact rather than just rely on yet one more anecdotal ("By some estimates") claim. Word-counts being one of the other things so much easier to do with digital texts than printed ones. It's something she could have easily tasked an assistant with ..... (Different editions do have different word-counts, so there is no definitive answer, but note could be made of that. Better than what she offers here, in any case.)
       The other pedantic note: Baron notes she's not great with names and proper spelling but it's hard not to cringe at: "Finnegan's Wake". Bonus demerits for publisher Oxford University Press as well -- not even the indexer caught that one.

       Personal background/information: I did read this book in print-form, and I admit that I find digital almost as hard to deal with and off-putting as Baron does. I have an e-reader -- a tablet, but one I use almost solely for e-reading (distractions are not an issue for me when using it; I'm not tempted to switch to e-mail or the internet when I pick up the cursed device) -- but I find it very, very difficult to bring myself to pick it up and read anything on it. I also am not and would never be part of the Amazon (or similar) environment, i.e. permit another party to in any way monitor my e-reading, if at all avoidable (the handful of library downloads I have tried, which I assume are monitored, have not been great successes -- i.e. I barely opened them). I have never purchased an e-title and can not imagine doing so; all the e-titles I have have been provided by publishers for review purposes or, in the case of out-of-copyright older texts, have been downloaded from internet archives (preferably not Google books; certainly not if only downloadable when signed in to Google).

- M.A.Orthofer, 15 February 2015

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Words Onscreen: Reviews: Naomi S. Baron: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Naomi S. Baron teaches at American University.

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