Reading & writing in the digital age

When Steve Jobs presented the iPad recently, The New Yorker reported, “The decision to enter publishing was a reversal for Jobs, who two years ago said that the book business was unsalvageable. ‘It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore,’ he said. ‘Forty per cent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year.’ ”

In fact, computer users have been shifting their non-book reading the screen, but it’s too soon to predict the impact of the digital age on the physical book, according to Dennis Baron, a professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois, in A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution (Oxford, 2009). I came across Baron’s well-written book while browsing at my local library and was intrigued by is examination of the effect of the digital age on reading and writing.

“As with other technologies that facilitated textual production, the computer is giving both writers and readers the opportunity to produce and consume massive amounts of text,” says Baron. Although computers don’t help us read more quickly, unlike their impact in making writing physically easier, “they allow us to find things to read more quickly.” Baron predicts, “The ebook audience won’t grow until that technology evolves to a point where digital text is as easy to access and as inexpensive as an MP3 player or a paperback. . . .[Meanwhile] the conventional book continues to thrive. ”

Newspaper, website, and blog reading strike me as the chief use of the flashy Apple iPad. I’m concerned about its computer-type screen for book-length reading, and hear reports pro and con about that issue. While I don’t yet own even a Kindle or its ilk, I probably will, and hope that such dedicated readers will prove useful for those who buy many books and for those who like to read multiple books while traveling.

In A Better Pencil, Baron tries to put the e-issue into the perspective of five thousand years of literacy history. “[T]he digitized text permeating our lives today,” he writes, “is the next stage, not the last stage, in the saga of human communication” and “it’s impossible to tell from what we’re doing now exactly where it is that we will be going with our words tomorrow.” While the digital world may not have changed fundamentally our reading process, it has made readers more obvious collaborators with writers. Baron adds:

Reading is in itself an act of rewriting. As our minds process the words we read, we create meanings that a writer may never have intended or even imagined possible. In addition, from the days when words first began to be inscribed, readers have always been able to physically annotate what they’ve read, and this too is a kind of textual revision. . . . [T]he invention of the highlighter in the 1970s encouraged readers to take up annotation big time, despite the fact that critics of that new technology griped that highlighting was quite different from marginal comments that actually dialogued with the author. . . . Not only can readers now mark up a [digital] document for their own use, they can also actually remake what they read, seamlessly revising it, transforming it into something completely different, even unrecognizable, even doing so without leaving visible tracks.

Baron’s focus in his book on writers and writing technology was fascinating, given my preoccupations—I periodically fantasize about writing in longhand, despite my discouraging handwriting, and I fight the urge to return to the manual typewriter because I miss the keystrokes. He has a refreshingly tart perspective to offer to romantics like me:

It’s likely that Shakespeare got right down to writing only after a lot of prep work. . . . Elizabethan writing tools were not exactly plug ‘n play. Writers of Shakespeare’s day maintained their own quills, mixed their own ink, and sprinkled each sheet of paper with a powder called pounce to prevent the ink from being absorbed in an illegible blot.

This fiddling and adjusting is a technological barrier between writer and page, equivalent in its own way to booting up a computer, clicking an icon, or refilling a paper tray. But [self-described neo-Luddite Theodore] Roszak feels that because the quill pen worked for Shakespeare it must be better than the computer. He says, “I’d like my students to ponder the fact that by the time they have located their style sheets and selected their fonts, Shakespeare was probably well into Act One, Scene One.” But it is equally likely that by the time today’s students have completed their assigned computer exercise, checked their Facebook page, downloaded some MP3 files, and moved on to an intense chat session, the Bard was still chasing geese around the yard to get his first quill of the day.

Love that image!

In fact, Baron argues that “the more we get used to any writing technology the more natural it becomes. The computer has already become naturalized as a writing tool for many writers, and one correspondent even writes in a letter to the editor that the computer is actually a more natural writing tool than the pen: ‘For many seasoned computer users, the brain seems to be more at ease sending signals to one’s fingertips to pound the keyboard rather than sending instructions to the same fingertips to write on a piece of paper’ (Kasim 2003).”

Drawing a parallel between lingering suspicion of computers for writing and the fear that greeted widespread typewriter use, Baron quotes from a massive study of typewriting, in the 1930s, in which several thousand typewriters were made available to elementary and even kindergarten students. Teachers were surprised at the results:

The typewriter reduces distraction of writing. In typewriting, the teachers say, the child’s mind is more on what he is writing than on the task of transmitting it to the page in legible form. There is less interference with thinking when writing with the machine than with pen, pencil, or crayon, particularly in the lower grades. This judgment . . . should reassure those who may fear the “mechanizing” influence of the typewriter, for in [the teachers’] opinion the machine tends to reduce and simplify the mechanics of writing, and tends to free the mind of the writer for more effective thinking and composing. (Wood and Freeman 1932, 122-23)

Both the visionaries and the critics tend to miss what the computer is actually doing to the process of writing, says Baron. “[B]ecause of computers, more people are writing more; they are creating new genres of writing; and they have more control over what they write and how it is distributed.” He continues:

Though schools are looking to computers as a way to increase literacy, we have no hard proof that the digital revolution has increased reading. What is certain, however, is that more people are writing, and they are writing more than ever.

In addition, as other writing technologies did before it, the computer is allowing writers to develop new genres and encouraging readers to read in new ways. Moreover, unlike the printing press or the typewriter, the computer gives writers greater and more direct control over what they write. In the office, as writers switched to computers, they began to bypass the typing pool, composing, revising, and printing final drafts of letters, reports, and other business documents on their own rather than relying on secretarial help. In school, computer-generated type is becoming the norm. Children are taking control of the design of their school writing even as they learn to write, and handwriting, which often posed an insurmountable aesthetic stumbling block for some young writers, has been replaced in many curricula by keyboarding.

Computers enable both everyday writers and professionals to exert greater creative control over their text. More and more writers consider fonts, graphics, even sound and video to be integral parts of their composition process. . . . Increasingly, writers find themselves bypassing traditional editorial supervision of publication, and the self-publication of blogs, web sites, and space pages often finds a niche audience.

I suspect there’s a link between the ease of revision computers allow and the explosion in the 1980s of more creative, process-based writing led by gurus like Peter Elbow and Donald M. Murray. Granted, much of that involved handwriting and maps, but computers let you keep moving stuff around once you did type it up. Unfortunately, I sense that composition classes at all levels have drifted back to more punitive instruction (focusing on errors) and to an emphasis on academic, thesis-driven prose, leaving the realm of discovery to creative writing classes. And to the exploding digital world of formal and informal workshops, web boards, blogs, and other sorts of writing communities that may be leaving the relevance of traditional frosh comp in the dust.

Next: Peter Elbow’s vital message for writers about readers.

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