The web ate my print option

The future of long-form reading


The following is an excerpt from Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World, by Naomi S. Baron, and examines reading habits in our modern era.

Several months after Amazon’s November 2007 introduction of the Kindle, Jeff Bezos had this to say in a letter to his shareholders:

We hope Kindle and its successors may gradually and incrementally move us over [the] years into a world with longer spans of attention, providing counterbalance to the recent proliferation of info-snacking tools.

Remember that at the time, Amazon’s big business was selling print books. This was long before the evolution of eBooks as a genre unto itself — and years before Amazon introduced such “info-snacking tools” as Amazon Singles.

Reading with “longer spans of attention” nearly always means reading longer texts. For several decades now, we have seen a move — both in publishing and in education — toward shorter reading. The trend pre-dates contemporary screen-intensive reading. Ask seasoned university professors what has happened to their course reading lists over the past thirty years, and I’ll wager they will tell you the lists have shrunk. Ten books became three or four. Books were replaced with chapters or articles. Thirty years ago, did students read everything on the syllabus? Often not. But at least at the better schools, they read substantially more than they do now.

Reading onscreen favors short-form reading. As we have seen, students in my studies consistently reported that for short pieces, reading onscreen may be fine; for longer texts, print wins hands down. There is a logic here. If the text is brief, maybe you can read it in one sitting (or one stroll across campus or one trip on the Metro). Maybe even without interruption. Probably you can remember the main points of what you have read without making annotations. Once the text becomes longer, the task grows weightier: more ideas to keep track of, notes you want to make to yourself. It is more taxing to keep all the pieces in your head.

Young adults are telling us that if we assign them longer texts, then medium matters. But they are also rebelling against long-form assignments. What to do? Institute a long-form movement? Actually, there is one. And this time it is online.

Longform.org was founded in 2010 to recommend “new and classic non-fiction from around the web.” The basic rules are that pieces must be over 2,000 words and must be available for free online. In 2012, Longform Fiction was added, along with an app for the iPad. There is also Longreads.com, offering articles of varying length. Pieces are neatly categorized by number of words and estimated time for reading them, such as “Less than 15 minutes (Under 3,750 words)” or “More than 60 minutes (Over 15,000 words).”

Before protesting, “Didn’t you just say that long-form reading and screens might not mix?” remember this: There are lots of people who love to read long-form. Particularly for one-off reading, medium may be less relevant for them. Committed readers sometimes consume vast numbers of volumes as eBooks. Highbrow magazines such as the Atlantic, the New Yorker, and the New York Times Magazine attract onscreen readers, even for their longer essays. The appetite for online long-form might be lower on news-based sites, where, in the words of Josh Tyrangiel, then managing editor of Time.com, the goal “is to make people smarter by saving them time.”

Is there a connection between text length and reading speed? While it is obviously hard to generalize, I suspect studies might show that shorter texts tend to be read comparatively quickly (in the sense of words per minute), especially on devices with internet connections. With longer texts, it is true that some will be skimmed. But if you engage in the “slow reading” we have just been talking about, chances are you will slow down for the passages you care about — either because they are worth relishing or because it takes time to mentally work through them.

Longer texts have another attribute: If they are well written or contain complex (or significant) ideas, they invite rereading.

Words Onscreen, by Naomi S. Baron (Oxford University Press, 2015)

Naomi S. Baron is Professor of Linguistics and Executive Director of the Center for Teaching, Research & Learning at American University in Washington, DC. She is the author of Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World (OUP, 2015) and Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World (OUP, 2010).

Image Credit: “MacBook Pro backlit keyboard” by Remko van Dokkum. CC by 2.0 via Flickr.

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