Jonathan Franzen is right about e-books (but for the wrong reason).

2 02 2012

Unless you’re the only book lover in the world who lives under a rock, you know that earlier this week the novelist Jonathan Franzen denounced e-books as “damaging for society.” I haven’t seen the original version of his remarks, but the Guardian suggests that the primary reason Franzen is worried about e-books is their lack of permanence. That bothers me too, but I think society should worry about the present before it worries about the future.

What have we got to worry about? Reading an e-book with hyperlinks and other accoutrements embedded in it isn’t really reading. It’s web surfing. Proponents of e-books seem to think this a good thing, like this guy responding to Franzen at Mashable:

[E-]books are the future. They’re cheaper to produce, easier to distribute and, dare I say it, probably promote reading better than your local library. And while Franzen is concerned about ebook versions differing from their real-world counterparts, I’m cheering the emergence of new kinds of ebooks that take the IRL reading experiences to places we scarcely imagined on the printed page. One need only look to interactive children’s books and etextbooks for evidence.

Since I’m a college professor, I’ll focus on the part about e-textbooks. A lot of people seem to think that paper textbooks have become obsolete. Take the Obama administration, for example. This is from USA Today:

Karen Cator, the U.S. Department of Education’s technology director, says moving classwork onto devices such as tablets gives students the ability to do research, check their work and get feedback from teachers, among other uses. “One of the opportunities to extend the school day is by providing students with interactive and engaging environments outside of school,” she says.

I thought the purpose of textbooks, the subject of that article, was to learn the information inside them. So what do the kinds of alternate objectives fostered by interactive, engaging environments inside a textbook (or any kind of book, for that matter) do to actual reading skills? They destroy them.

This subject makes up a huge chunk of Nicholas Carr’s book, The Shallows. While I think his subtitle, “What the Internet is doing to our brains,” is unfortunate, he has plenty of evidence for what the internet is doing to our attention spans. As long as e-book readers serve double duty as internet delivery devices, results like those that Carr describes are inevitable.

Here’s an extended excerpt from Carr’s section on the research about reading hypertext vs. text on paper (pp. 126-27, endnote omitted):

A 1989 study showed that readers of hypertext often ended up clicking distractedly “through the pages instead of reading them.” A 1990 experiment revealed that hypertext readers often “could not remember what they had and had not read.” In another study that same year, researchers had two groups of people answer a series of questions by searching through a set of documents. One group searched through electronic hypertext documents, while the other searched through traditional paper documents. The group that used the paper documents outperformed the hypertext group in completing the assignment. In reviewing the results of these and other experiments, the editors of a 1996 book on hypertext and cognition wrote that since hypertext “imposes a higher cognitive load on the reader,” it’s no surprise “that empirical comparisons between paper presentation (a familiar situation) and hypertext (a new, cognitively demanding situation) do not always favor hypertext.” But they predicted that, as readers gained greater “hypertext literacy,” the cognition problems would likely diminish.

That hasn’t happened. Even though the World Wide Web has made hypertext commonplace, indeed ubiquitous, research continues to show that people who read linear text comprehend more, remember more and learn more than those who read text peppered with links.

I could go on, but do I really have to? Many of you were probably clicking distractedly through the World Wide Web long before now because this post is so long. The Internet is designed to encourage that behavior. I’m not saying you have to stop doing this, only that it might be nice to cultivate an ability among students for deep reading as well.

I’ve seen a number of e-book fans denounce Franzen for elitism. I guess this is inevitable since he’s the guy who snubbed Oprah. I also get the distinct impression that Nicholas Carr isn’t too popular in techie circles even though he is no Luddite. But let’s focus on the argument here, not the people who are making it.

Why should I as a teacher endorse a technology with embedded distractions when one of my primary goals as an instructor is to get students to become better readers? If e-books make achieving that goal harder than it is already, aren’t they damaging society? Seriously, I’d love to hear a good answer to either of those questions.



8 responses

2 02 2012
Rohan Maitzen

E-books don’t necessarily interfere with deep reading, of course: not all e-books are ‘enhanced’ or ‘hypertext’ (though I realize your particular target here is e-textbooks and the fixation on changing reading into interacting and playing and going outside the text itself). I have a number of students now in my 19thC fiction class who have e-readers with the novels on them and the only problem I’ve noticed is the lack of consistent pagination. My own e-reader has no wi-fi, which is good for my budget (no impulse buying!) but also for my concentration. And the words are the same every time I read the book… Franzen’s remarks were annoying to some people, I think, because he was pronouncing so grandiosely on something he seems quite ignorant about. Anyway, a lot depends, in these things, on the specifics. I do worry about impermanence, not of the text, but of my ownership of the text.

2 02 2012
Ben Schmidt

The obvious answer to the first question, I think, is; getting students to be better readers means training them to deal with writing as they will encounter it, not as we might like them to. If Carr’s studies from the 80s/90s are correct, a lifetime of reading books doesn’t prepare you to read e-texts well; the exercise of forcing students to actually learn from them (that they can be for more than skimming) might do better. Depending where you fall on the teaching facts/teaching critical thinking skills continuum, it might be worth trying to teach reading skills that will actually get used.

2 02 2012
Jonathan Rees


That’s a tautology. We need to get them to deal with writing as they find it assumes that they will never try to seek out books without hyperlinks and snappy graphics. You teach them to read deeply so that they’ll seek out books that require deep reading.

I won’t give up that easy.

2 02 2012
Jonathan Franzen is right about e-books (but for the wrong reason … | My Blog

[…] from: Jonathan Franzen is right about e-books (but for the wrong reason … This entry was posted in Art, Articles, Current Events, eBooks, Education, Historical, Media, […]

2 02 2012

I can’t help wondering if the larger point isn’t that we could/should/might be teaching that there are multiple ways of reading, and it’d be useful for students to be familiar with a range of reading approaches: books, e-texts, etc., and even with finer distinctions — email isn’t the same as Twitter, monographs aren’t the same as novels or short story anthologies, etc. So that we aren’t just teaching students how to read, but how and when to shift reading styles. (And writing styles, too, for that matter).

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