The New York Times ran a very interesting article a few days ago. The article considers a number of issues surrounding teens’ reading habits. It discusses “Internet reading skills” and the fact that this type of reading is not evaluated by standardized tests. It considers arguments that Internet reading is both helpful and harmful. Many of the readers’ comments are as interesting as the article itself. One of the ideas in particular took me by surprise. Some of the people quoted in the article and a number of the respondents took an attitude of “at least they’re reading something” and “Internet reading is better than no reading at all.”
Interesting ideas, but for me they ignore two of the fundamental questions: WHAT are they reading and HOW are they reading?
First the “what.” I think the content is far more important that the medium. If a person is reading War and Peace, the Wall Street Journal, or Plato’s dialogues, does the medium really matter? Of course not. Book, printout, computer screen, or smartphone – good content is good content. Let the readers choose the format that they find most comfortable. However, if a person’s Internet reading is limited to message board postings, instant messages, and MySpace comments, then the content is far less meaningful.
Next the “how.” There is a lot of variety in how people read Internet content. Some are reading articles in online journals. Some are reading public domain books. And some are clicking rapidly from page to page as quickly as the next tantalizing tidbit catches their eye. I don’t consider this last category reading. It’s skimming, and it’s creating a generation of people who can’t sustain prolonged, in-depth focus on content.
I’ve seen these people, and I’ve worked with them. It can be frustrating for both sides. They ask a question. You answer it. But they think you haven’t answered it because they only skimmed the reply. They didn’t READ the full details. There wasn’t a helpful picture or video embedded in the reply. There were no links to send them off to a host of Internet sites. There was merely clear content, but somehow they just couldn’t comprehend it.