The report of the death of reading was an exaggeration

Mrs Kristine Cooke, Director of Information Services

In an article for The Wall Street Journal in December 2010, Jennifer Valentino-DeVries cites research that states Internet usage has grown 121 per cent in the past five years.  This statistic appears to be validated by the demise of major book chains and the fall in sales of printed books by 25 per cent (Katz, 2011). The environment of the connected internet has opened the individual to an overwhelming flood of information, but has this inundation encouraged skimming, leapfrogging, distractedness and superficiality without the benefits of deep reading that allows sustained attention on complex ideas? There is evidence to support this opinion.

Malcolm Knox, in an article in Spectrum magazine in April 2011, explained how the changing nature of work and leisure is rewiring the human brain in such a way that deep reading or the “concentrated pursuit of linear stories and thought is being trained out of us” (p.6). Knox quotes Nicholas Carr from his 2010 book The shallows: how the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember: “Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I skip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.” Carr offers validating evidence including a study revealing that workers stop work to check email on average thirty to forty times an hour. Email, tweets, RSS feeds, pokes, blog posts, and the like all mitigate to distract and sidetrack.

Digital information available in the Web 2.0 environment leads to a high degree of connectedness to information and information producers. This is exacerbated by the modern student’s predisposition to “do her homework” while also having a number of screens open (including Facebook and YouTube) with  the iPhone switched on for all those vital messages and calls, and streaming re-runs of their favourite television shows on an iPad. Even when exercising, people listen to songs on their iPods, tap out emails on their iPhones and watch programs on high-definition televisions. Many teachers are concerned about the effects this behaviour is developing. The science of neuroplasticity (Doidge, 2008) explains that brain habits can be rewired in years, not generations. Scientists at the University of California are also concerned that modern brains do not have the downtime necessary for learning to be processed (Richtel, 2010).

It is generally assumed that a degree of isolation, focus and silence is required to undertake the concentration that deep, sustained reading demands. Likewise, deep reflection is supposed to be a quiet and solitary task. This concept causes friction between parents and children, librarians and students. Many adults believe that the new reading behaviours are wrong. However, is deep, sustained, linear, individual reading the only reading asked of the modern student? In this connected world of information overload, should students learn one way to read – or do they need a larger armoury of reading skills and strategies to succeed? It may be that reading has become multi-faceted and different approaches and levels of proficiency are now required.

How can adults help students with this new reality? Many parents and teachers are “products of the page” while their children and students are “partakers of the screen”. This does not have to mean that an insurmountable gulf divides the two. Teachers could capitalise on the abilities of the modern student to read different types of texts: literature and scientific articles, for example, require radically different approaches. Therefore, by providing a variety of information sources, they encourage a range of reading strategies. Clever searchers and skimmers – perhaps ‘hoverers’ is a better term – collect information efficiently but they still need to evaluate what is relevant and then return to delve more deeply into the information depths. This means teachers have an opportunity and an obligation to develop richer, more complex tasks that not only allow for surveying broadly but also mandate depth of understanding and scholarship.

Linked to the idea of types of reading is also the variety of formats in which “books” are now available. Queensland author, John Birmingham, predicts that bookshops will continue to struggle “while e-reading devices will enjoy a ‘hyper-accelerated rise’”. (Neill, 2011, p.5) but all these predictions have not led to the immediate demise of books; indeed print books still outsold e-books by a ratio of four to one in the United States in 2011(Neill,  2011, p.6).

One response to the e-reader phenomenon has been the release in July of the ultra-light “flipback” book. This innovation measures 12 centimetres by 8 and weighs less than 150 grams, barely more than an iPhone. This format was invented in 2009 by Dutchman Hugo van Woerden to make use of excess Bible paper. He put lightweight, high-quality “onion skin” onto a miniature sideways book that can be read in one hand. Hachette Australia has been releasing titles in this format since July. Some publishers see this as the “book striking back” but it is becoming increasingly obvious that no one format will take over completely. Today’s reader demands choice. Traditional books are suitable in some situations but e-readers in others. In any case, there is no reason why an iPad or Kindle should not include a rich and varied library uniquely geared to the specific interests of its owner.

To balance the “need” to fill every moment with connectedness and the processing of information is reading for pleasure. Perhaps this is one way of counteracting or counterbalancing the plethora of informational and academic reading required of the modern scholar. Parents and teachers have a role here to encourage and suggest a range of reading that challenges, enlightens, entertains, and expands the horizons of students.

What is a book, in any case? Is it the physical, bound, paper artefact or the ideas and stories created by the author?  Words, either on the page or on the screen, are not disappearing – they may simply be appearing (or reappearing) in new formats. Books may change the way they look but the skill of reading, both skimming and delving deeply, is absolutely crucial for the modern scholar – or citizen.


“The report of my death was an exaggeration” – Mark Twain, May 1897, after a reporter was sent to investigate whether he had died.

Anderson, J. (2010). Understanding the changing needs of the US online consumers, 2010. Forrester Research. Retrieved August 29, 2011 from,/q/id/57861/t/2

Carr, N. (2010). The shallows: how the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember. W. W. Norton & Co.: New York

Doidge, N. (2008). The brain that changes itself.  Scribe: Melbourne

Katz, A. (2011). How we read now., July 17. Retrieved August 29, 2011 from

Knox, M. (2011). “Driven by distraction”. Spectrum: Sydney Morning Herald, April 2-3, pp. 6-7

Neill, R. (2011). “Paging all authors”. Review: The Weekend Australian, August 13-14, pp. 5-7.

Richtel, M. (2010). “Mental downside of filling every moment”. Sydney Morning Herald, August 2, p.17

Valentino-DeVries, J. (2010). Internet now as popular as TV, survey shows. The Wall Street Journal digital network, December 13. Retrieved August 29, 2011 from

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