reading offline, reading online

When Walt Crawford announces a new issue of Cites & Insights, I usually immediately click over to citesandinsights.info to check the table of contents and see what I have to look forward to. If I’m interested in a piece, I’ll click through to the html version and skim through it. If it’s something I’m particularly interested in, I make a note to print out the PDF later. (I’d read the whole thing online, but the html versions are too wide to make for comfortable reading, and the PDFs involve too much scrolling.)

The most recent C&I contains an essay that falls into that print out the PDF category — I’ve skimmed it and look forward to reading it for real when I print it out. It’s called “Writing about Reading,” and it takes a good long look at the National Endowment for the Arts studies of recent years that claim to show there is a Drastic and Dire Crisis in this country because Nobody Reads Anymore.

As you may gather by my use of sarcastic capitalization, I am unimpressed with the arguments the NEA makes on this count. If you’re in any sort of business that deals with books and learning and reading, you’ve probably heard a good deal of talk about how the web has decimated people’s ability to do sustained reading of complex texts. Nicholas Carr — or his headline writers — have gone so far as to wonder if the internet is making us stupid.

I spend a lot of time on the internet, and I don’t think I’m any stupider than I was before.

Actually, in some ways, I think I’m smarter.

I started using the web in 1995, with Netscape. I used to sit in my dorm room and read ICON, the alternative weekly paper in my home town that I later ended up writing for. I also remember quite early on discovering the site Literary Kicks, which is still around but is far more robust than it was then. And I poked around the library website, and most any place else that links or WebCrawler searches could take me.

When I first started moseying around the web, I was baffled. I’d get to a page of text, and I’d start reading the text, and then there’d be a hyperlink — usually in the middle of a sentence! — and I had to figure out what to do. Should I continue reading the rest of the sentence and then go back to the hyperlink? Should I click the hyperlink in the middle of reading the sentence? And then when I got to the page that the link led to, what was I supposed to do? Quite frequently, the page that was linked to would similarly be a text with links and would create similar dilemmas. It was confusing and made for an unsettled and unsatisfying reading experience. I met a guy at the college radio station that year who said he was working on the Great American Hypertext, and I thought, Dear God, please tell me I will never have to read such a thing.

Flash forward about a decade, and I’m sitting at my old job reading my feeds and I come across this post by Steve Lawson, in which he talks about how he expects to be able to link to things when he’s writing:

my natural inclination is to write something like this:

John Blyberg’s ILS Customer Bill of Rights kicked off a lot of discussion regarding what libraries might demand of ILS vendors, especially in terms of enabling individual libraries to create our own services to sit on top of the ILS. The new North Carolina State University library catalog, which uses an Endeca front-end on top of its Sirsi catalog, and Casey Bisson’s WordPress front-end for a III catalog are two examples of experiments in this vein, while the report of the University of California’s Bibliographic Services Task Force, Rethinking How We Provide Bibliographic Services for the University of California (PDF) puts some of the same concerns in the wider context of an enormous state university system.

That seems like the natural way to write things now to me, too. In the last few papers I wrote for library school, I constantly found myself wishing I could just link some text instead of inserting a footnote. The link would take people directly to the thing I was talking about. The footnote could help them get there, but it wasn’t immediate, and how often do you go track down the source mentioned in a footnote? I’ve done it, but it is increasingly a hassle.

When did I go from “OMG how can I possibly take in all the information in this document and all its links?” to “that is totally the way to read — and write — everything?”

I’m not sure. But it is clear to me that when we talk about the web taking away the ability to do sustained reading of complex texts (and I think the jury’s still out on that one), we neglect to consider the skills that the web has led us to develop. It is useful — and becoming essential — to be able to read a hyperlinked text, to be able to bounce around from screen to screen, to skim a document and find out if it’s something you need to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest or something you just need to get the gist of.

Ezra Pound liked to say that it was not actually necessary to read an entire work in order to understand it and learn from it. I often like to think of Pound on the internet, and how right he is. I don’t mean to dismiss close reading or slow reading: I still think both are still important and have a place. But we live in a world in which so much text is produced on an hourly basis that you simply could not take it all in. You couldn’t even take in, say, all the material that pertained to some interest of yours. You have to figure out how to filter it — how to get what you need, how to find the bits you want to go back to. If bouncing from document to document is a sign of stupidity, then yes, the web has made me stupid. But I wish that the doomsayers would, rather than simply lamenting the skills they believe we have lost, look at the skills we have gained.

6 comments

  1. Mark

    That piece by Walt is a lot of fun as he skewers the heck out of people who write idiotic reports due to having an agenda.

    But, um, I follow me the hell out of some footnotes, thank you very much. ;-) While hyperlinks *can* serve some of the purposes of footnotes, they often do not.

    While everything in Steve’s example could and probably would be written in a text document with footnotes, I would say that only 2 out of 6 are serving in anything like a typical, “historical” footnote way. In this example of writing, they are also the only 2 I would probably follow. Except I have already [even then] seen them.

    I do not know what the differences are between hyperlinks and footnotes–they are myriad–as they both have multiple uses. I agree that they overlap some, but in many ways they do not. And the writing is different because the tools to do it are different; that is, they serve different purposes. And, yes, this may well be a chicken and egg thing.

    Now, I am not arguing against any part of your post–except the who follows footnotes still–just trying to add something to it.

  2. walt crawford

    Good commentary–one I may use part of in a followup article at some point.

    And having a 12,000-word essay called “a lot of fun” fairly makes my weekend, Mark.

    The NEA succeeded in its agenda to some extent: It got more money. Hard to argue with that–but easy to argue with the methodology.

    By the way, I’ve read attempts at true hypertextual essays and fiction. Not pretty, at least not the ones I’ve seen…and “not pretty” is a kind way of putting it.

  3. laura

    Mark, I didn’t mean to imply that hyperlinks are the equivalent of footnotes — that’s sloppy thinking/writing on my part. I track down footnotes too, on occasion (I used to give my students an extra credit assignment that involved finding the book or article a footnote cited, reading a little of it, and writing me a paragraph or two about whether they thought the author was citing the book/article appropriately — I think only two people ever did this). What I wanted to say, really, is that online reading and the kind of skipping around it involves is not necessarily bad, just different. And not or again, as Walt would say.

    And yeah, Walt, I can’t imagine writing a hypertext essay, although that doesn’t mean I don’t think it could be done.

  4. Mark

    Ah, my friend, glad to hear it. Not that I believed you meant what it sounded like (to me, anyway) you were saying.

    As I said, I do agree. Not necessarily bad; just different. When the tool suits the purpose then it is a good, and when it doesn’t …. But definitely not or. We need both kinds, and more.

  5. Kaijsa

    Thanks for pointing to this. I haven’t looked at C&I for a while, and this article will be useful for the lit review I’m updating for a research study. We’re looking at reading habits of college students and pointing out that the NEA reports aren’t exactly useful. We’re going to gleefully cite Walt now.

  6. rick roche

    Thanks for pointing out the hyperlink in text issue. I had never examined what I do. I usually pass over them and go back, though on occasion if one is very tempting, I link and sometimes never finish the original piece.

    I think I have reduced my links, only adding ones I really want someone to see, instead of every possible link as I did for awhile. Put in too many links and no one looks at them. Also, you may get investigated as spam if you put in tons of links.

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