Saturday on the Couch – Are eBooks Making Us Dumber?

Jul 30, 2016

As an avid reader of eBooks, the above headline in a blog on The Reading Room website immediately had my attention.

It is, of course, one of the great modern discussions, is it better to read a real book with real pages and that “booky”smell, or is the convenience of carrying thousands of books in your handbag, or top pocket on your phone, worth the sacrifice?

Moreover, the article went on to discuss whether the eBook is changing the way writer’s write and readers read.

I remember doing a course in digital publishing when the company I worked for decided to digitally reproduce their annual report, brochures, advertising material etc, not just as a .pdf of the printed document.

Popular wisdom then, the late 1990’s, was that people only read on screen in a pattern of “F”, that is, a limited number of full lines at the top (from memory 20 was the magic number) then the attention moved into a reduced reading area, the short arm of the “F”, which gradually moved further to the left by the bottom of the page, where our eyes read no more than a few words.

We were encouraged to use columns and to put our attention grabbers on the left-hand side, with graphs, images, flow charts on the right-hand side of the page. (As I have not been in this area of the workforce for about a decade, I do not know if this popular wisdom has been changed or reinterpreted.)

In more scientific terms Naomi Baron’s book Words Onscreen explains how reading patterns have changed since the advent of digital publishing. Baron argues, the virtues of eReading are matched with drawbacks. Users are easily distracted by other temptations on their devices, multitasking is rampant, and screens coax us to skim rather than read in-depth. What is more, if the way we read is changing, so is the way we write. In response to changing reading habits, many authors and publishers are producing shorter works and ones that don’t require reflection or close reading.

According to novelist Joanna Scott, writing courses are teaching wannabe authors to “produce a solid, sellable product…a good read, distinguished by gripping plots, reliable research, and clear, unfussy writing – rather than a work of art”.

Now we come to a real dichotomy – does a novel which people buy and read, in other words, a best seller, automatically become a bad book? The late much admired, sometimes maligned, author Bryce Courtenay was accused by a member of the literati of writing “popular” books. His comeback was to ask if any author deliberately sat down to write an “unpopular” book? Accused of writing to “make money” Bryce agreed that yes he did make money from his career and that he allowed the interviewer “the slings and arrows” but would keep to himself “the outrageous fortune”.

Bryce Courtenay aside, why is is that we scoff at popular literature, or for that matter at books written by women, the dismissively named “chic lit”? Isn’t it enough that people are reading? Is a book only worthy if it puts us to sleep; is enjoying a book bad?

But back to the original proposition – do eBooks make us dumber?

Well if they do, I’m getting dumber by the minute. All I learn from reading, history, geography, philosophy etc in the digital world are apparently not as worthy as if they were learned from a printed book. Phew, thank goodness I also read books of the real variety, pages to turn, smell and all, or I might become really dumb!

So as you sit on the couch this Saturday, tell us do you agree or disagree – are eBooks making us dumber?

Books by Bryce Courtenay are available from Dymocks.

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