Author: Maryanne Wolf
Summary: Bleh. This book didn’t make strong or even clear arguments and the author was particularly imprecise in her descriptions of scientific studies.
While I love books about books, it seems like books on reading generally make me grumpy. While I’d like to learn to read better, but the books on the topic have made me realize that I’m attached to my own approach. Many of the techniques these authors suggest don’t work for me and their tone often strikes me as smug or condescending. This particular book is about the differences between reading electronic and print versions of a text and about the way reading online may be changing our reading habits.
I should put it out there that I’m biased in favor of digital communication. Keep that in mind when I say that I felt the author had a strong bias the other way. She constantly makes unsupported claims that I might let slide if I agreed with her. For instance, she claims that critical thinking is increasing ’embattled’ as technology promotes ease, efficiency, immediacy – no citation. Are people getting worse at thinking critically? Is this because of the way we interact with material online? I certainly think this could be true, but if you’re going to put something in print it feels authoritative and it should be supported with a citation.
Even when she does cite specific studies, I feel like she’s being at best imprecise and at worst misleading. As an example, she describes one study as finding that ‘skimming is the new normal in our digital reading’ and that ‘as often as not’ we read digital material with eye-movement that suggests skimming. She doesn’t give us an exact percentage of the time this is the case. She doesn’t compare this to frequency of skimming when reading a physical book. And she doesn’t describe the purpose of the reading someone is engaging in when skimming. I’m often reading online to find specific information, so I skim to find it. That’s different from reading for complete comprehension. All of this lack of detail may simply be the author trying to simplify, but I find myself suspicious that a more complete picture wouldn’t support her narrative as well.
I did enjoy some of her explanations of basic science, such as how the brain processes the written word. However, when she strayed into science I knew, I found her descriptions vague to the point of being wrong. She also on many occasions explained a study in such a way that I couldn’t tell if the study coined the word for a particular phenomenon or showed that phenomenon was actually happening. Alternately, she might state something authoritatively and than go on to discuss whether or not what she said was true. I am unpleasantly surprised that someone who studies language would use language so imprecisely and it does almost seem like she’s trying to fool an inattentive reader.
Last but not least, there was some of the usual snobbery I’ve noticed in books like this. The author claims (without support) that a generation used to the 140 characters of twitter would have a hard time handling sentences of 150-300 words in some classics. When discussing genres we might read, she gives positive descriptors of all genres but romance (described only as ‘bodice-ripping’). She also name-drops specific authors in the other genres she mentions, but can’t be bothered to mention any well known romance authors.
Anyway, I hope you don’t mind yet another rant about a book telling people how to read. I think I’ll be moving on from my ill-fated experiment with reading about reading, so this should be the last one.