Paper trails

Falling in and out of love with on-screen reading

Originally published in the July/August 2015 issue of This.


Nearly two years ago, I switched most of my media consumption to digital. Books, newspapers, magazines, music, movies — I abandoned buying new physical items and instead used my iPad and phone for reading, watching and listening. It was great, especially the reading. Every book and article I wanted was there exactly when I wanted it, highlights and “margin” notes synced back to my computer, the content was searchable and I could use my library card without leaving my couch. The promise of the future (minus the hover cars) was finally fulfilled! Then my wife recommended a book to me, one we already owned. So, for the first time in months, I curled up with a paperback. My two-year-old son wandered into the living room, saw me reading, pulled a volume of Calvin & Hobbes from the shelf and spent the next half hour sitting with me leafing through it pointing out all the tigers.

Kids, right?

Our relationship with text has always been important. Reading and writing is the thing that got us over the game of generational telephone that was oral culture. It, in effect, allowed us to conquer time. With the rise of digital text, we can also conquer space — imagine the entire Library of Alexandria contained on a single hard drive smaller than your finger (or, better yet, a bunch of hard drives that are decentralized, redundant, networked and impervious to fire).

It should be an amazing time for people who love to read, but studies have started to pop up suggesting that reading digitally is worse than reading on paper. There are indications we retain less information and the act of reading on a screen is more physically demanding, sapping our concentration. Our attention spans are being whittled away by computers and phones because the Internet is a giant dopamine machine full of tweets and cat videos. Screens are getting smaller and the New York Times is experimenting with one-sentence articles that will fit on your watch, destroying any kind of nuance the news still had. It has been argued (convincingly) that Google is making us stupid. Intellectual detritus — notebooks, letters, sketches on napkins — once collected and catalogued and cared for are now replaced by emails and Word documents and other formats people can (and do) delete without a second thought.

Text, the thing that once made information tangible and timeless, has somehow become ephemeral. But, really, I’m not all that worried about it.

The fact is, we’re reading more than ever. My other son, 15, sends and receives between 6,000 and infinity text messages each day. Is it Shakespeare? No. We can certainly quibble over content, but when I was his age, I read almost nothing, so I figure he’s way ahead. I’m also skeptical of studies that take people raised reading mostly on paper — which is even true of millennials — and finds they aren’t as good at doing it on screens. Of course they aren’t. But soon enough we’ll have a generation raised reading almost entirely on screens and it probably won’t even occur to us to test them. The idea that we totally nailed reading when we did away with scrolls is silly.

That being said, I’m buying paper books again, and I re-subscribed to a bunch of magazines and newspapers. It’s expensive and inconvenient and part of me hates it, but I didn’t have much of a choice once my two-year-old grabbed Hobbes. For all the amazing things my iPad can do, when he looks at it he doesn’t see The Handmaid’s Tale or The Globe & Mail or The New Yorker. He sees his dragon movie and that stupid game where the fish farts rainbow bubbles. He doesn’t see that I love reading and it doesn’t make him want to read too. For now, I guess I can handle the paper cuts.