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40 Hour Workweek

Uncategorized   |   Jan 15, 2009

The internet vs. “real” reading

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

The internet vs. “real” reading

By Angela Watson


Hours spent reading books in the past month: 20
Hours spent reading on the internet in the past month: 120

These are troubling personal statistics from a former voracious book fiend. I taught myself to read at age 4. I read Judy Blume’s entire collection of books in one month when I was 7. As a teenager, I heard my father say countless times, “There’s Ang, with her nose stuck in a book again”. Books have been my solace, my escape, my source of wisdom, and my fiercest passion throughout college and a few years beyond.

And then came the internetz.

The realization of it’s power dawned on me slowly. So, anything I want to know can be uncovered in seconds via a search engine? And…I can connect with strangers halfway around the world? You mean, I can type a few sentences and voila, my words are immortalized for the entire planet to see? Really--all this for a dial-up phone connection and $29.99 a month? For a person who loves sharing and acquiring knowledge, this was surely the greatest invention of all time.

Then I got a laptop. The internet, in bed!
Then I got high-speed modem. The internet, in triple time!
Then I got a better laptop. The internet, light-weight with longer battery life!
Then I got wireless access. The internet, in my kitchen, on my balcony, by my pool!
Then I got an even better laptop. Dual processor, 17 inch screen, built-in webcam!
Then I got a MacBook. ‘Nuff said.
Then I got an iTouch. The internet, in my pocket! I tremble at the thought.

And now in 2009 I must reluctantly conclude that going online has replaced reading a book as my favorite past time.

It isn’t hard to understand why only the rare book can still capture my interest for prolonged periods. The computer keeps getting faster and more powerful, and is virtually unlimited in its ability to provide up-to-the-minute information. The book is nearly the same as it was thousands of years ago. The book has gone essentially unchanged.

But I haven’t.

I want to interact with text, and books frustrate me in that regard. When I read a controversial self-help book, I want to click on ‘comments’ to see how others responded. When I read a really compelling (or really weak) novel, I desperately want to visit Amazon to see how well it’s selling and read other people’s reviews. Even when I read the Bible, that ageless classic text, I find myself wanting to click on ‘show alternate translation’ to see how the phrase reads in the original language or in a loosely-interpreted version, and I’m compelled to compare how classic commentators and contemporary thinkers reflect on scriptural truths.

I want to follow embedded links, see related posts, and access recommended reading immediately. I want to find the origin of an idiom. I want to Google unfamiliar cultural references. I want to search for other authors who have written on the same topic and gain their perspectives.

Put together, these instincts comprise the quintessential picture of a good reader. I’m making text connections, summarizing, comparing and contrasting, utilizing research and reference tools, analyzing charts and graphs and maps. I’m an enthusiastic, purposeful reader who takes charge of her learning.

So what’s the problem? Clearly the issue is not that I’ve stopped reading. Nor am I concerned that I’m wasting my time surfing from one meaningless website or pointless online game to another. I don’t use social media at all (the audacity of refusing to join Facebook or MySpace!). My time on the computer is spent either writing (this blog, my other blog, my website, and email) or it’s spent reading…and each activity fuels and inspires the next. It’s an integrated and intuitive process that I’ve been following–and simultaneously denying–for years.

Most of the online text I consume is high-quality, well-written nonfiction. I subscribe to over 200 blogs in my Google Reader and empty most of the folders daily. That’s at least 90 minutes a day of reading about what’s new in education and world events, and 30 minutes of reading about spirituality, fashion, celeb news, and random humor on blogs that are exceptionally well-composed and inspiring to me as a writer. These blogs (even the shallow ones), accompanied by a variety of websites and my numerous daily Google searches, lead me to all sorts of new information that challenge the way I perceive myself and the world around me.

I’m reading carefully chosen content that satisfies me and enriches my life. So why, instead of feeling well-informed, do I lament losing my passion for books? Why do I feel as though the internet offers a cheapened version of knowledge, the Wal-Mart of intellectualism?

I’m not the only one. Sarah at The Reading Zone has an excellent post about how students don’t count the internet (along with magazines and other authentic texts) as ‘real reading’. Just like me, the kids have convinced themselves that they are only improving their reading skills and experiencing real learning when it comes from books. After all, you READ a book. You GO ON the internet. You SURF the internet. Surfing is not reading. The Internet is the laid-back, less authoritative version of its more respectable cousin, Real Literature.

Those nagging feelings of doubt about the validity of reading online compete fiercely with the part of me which enjoys it so deeply. I hear an undeniable internal voice that demands an answer: Who says that someone’s writing is inherently more valuable just because it’s in a book?

I suppose I know there is no substitute for the artful weaving of a lengthy narrative or the depth of information that a book can offer. (If there was, I never would have published one myself.) And there is no substitute for the feeling of a real book in my hands as I settle in on a long flight, or bury myself under the covers after a stressful day. So I continue to fall into old habits, checking out innumerable books from the library and renewing them to their max as they pile up on my nightstand only partially read. I look over at the stack longingly and guiltily, remembering the days when I would devour the pile in a matter of hours. And I force myself to read them.

But maybe I wouldn’t have to force myself to read books if I stopped requiring myself to read the way I did when I was younger: curled up in a cozy chair, totally absorbed in the text.

Maybe I would enjoy books more if I allowed myself to read in a way that makes sense to me now: sprawled on the daybed with my MacBook opened beside me, poised to research at any moment.

Maybe reading books wouldn’t feel like a chore if I gave myself permission to take a month to read a book that I am capable of finishing in a day.

Maybe I’d be more excited if my goal wasn’t to get through the whole book so I could get on to the next one, and it was to instead just experience the book.

Maybe if I gave myself permission to read a book and the internet together, I would solve both of my problems: I would value the information on the internet more highly and I would regain my enthusiasm for the old-fashioned book.

I’m tired of feeling guilty for being on the internet too much and neglecting my books. The world has changed and I have, too. This is my manifesto of maybes, and it’s where I stand for now. Tonight I’m going to make myself a cup of tea and curl up with a good book and my laptop. Probably with some chocolate, too (I can eat with the left hand and scroll with the right). I think that’s the way it’s supposed to be, for me. And I’m going to keep doing it that way until I truly give myself permission to just enjoy READING, in any format that interests me.

Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela created the first version of this site in 2003, when she was a classroom teacher herself. With 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach, Angela oversees and contributes regularly to...
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  1. Welcome to the wonderful world of New Literacies. I’ve been doing quite a bit of research on the concept of new literacies and exploring how the connections between one interactive text and another has changed (or as some see, reinforced) the process of reading. You’re still read and you shouldn’t feel guilty for it! And neither should your students. For more New Literacies information, visit: http://www.newliteracies.uconn.edu/

  2. I’ve been thinking about this a lot as well. I feel like there is something to be said for books over Internet- and yet I’m not sure what. You make a compelling case to challenge the guilt we all feel for staring at the white screen. This was a great post.

  3. SmWonderoo: “New Literacies”. Hah! I should of thought of that term! I’d love to find out more about your research. Thanks for the link. It really made me wonder why ALL of the reading instruction we do is based on printed materials. Sure, it’s only third grade, and I’m assuming that deficiency doesn’t hold true for the older grades, but it’s disheartening to think that the majority of ‘research and reference’ my kids do will be on the internet in real life and with printed materials for test prep.

    Brazen: I think it’s interesting that you mention the “guilt we all feel for staring at the white screen”. I wasn’t aware that others felt that way. I see lots of blog posts in the edusphere about 21st century skills (ugh, hate that ridiculous term) but very little about the guilt factor of replacing the printed word with the computer screen. Like you, I struggle to determine why books are better–they’re”supposed” to be, yet that sentiment doesn’t ring true.

  4. Oh, trust me, anyone who has ever been a big reader (including myself) and can tear their eyes away from their laptop or iTouch screen for a moment has those feelings of guilt.

    I think the key thing is to remember that no matter if its a book or a website, its WORDS. You could bind all your favorite websites into books and read them in paper format in a chair down by the lake, or you can read them in your bed on a screen. Might as well enjoy it- after all, it’s probably not going away any time soon!

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