Is the Printed Word Fading Out?

Bibliophile Jordan Barber analyzes the relationship between reading content online and in print.

Sometimes I have trouble reading the webcomic Dinosaur Comics because there’s a lot of text. I don’t think I’d have this problem if it were in print. I read Watchmen without too much discomfort, yet I seem to have a problem when the text is online.

Courtesy of the American Memory Project.

As part of a series about the future of reading, New York Times writer Motoko Rich recently wrote an article called “Literacy Debate: Online, R U Really Reading?” In the article, Rich describes a family where the parents are steeped in the traditional form of print reading, while the kids obsess over online methods of reading and features like RSS feeds. Rich sways between the potentials for both mediums, observing that online reading is often more of a gathering process that involves multiple sites and opinions rather than the linear path of a book. In the end, she seems deferential towards the holiness of the printed word. Rich notes that as kids have become less interested in book reading, their school tests scores have dropped.

This debate isn’t new, and I’ve written a couple pieces myself about our changing relationship to reading. The majority feel that online reading is practical and has a place but will never replace the printed word. Newspapers or even magazines may fall into disuse, but books will certainly remain.

William Powers of National Journal wrote a piece for a discussion series at Harvard titled “Hamlet’s Blackberry: Why Paper is Eternal.” Part of his argument is that we’re developing technology that attempts to emulate paper itself. That is, we’re making technology to mimic something that already exists. Whether it’s Amazon’s Kindle e-book reader or the MacBook Air, we’re attempting to copy paper’s attributes of being lightweight, portable, readable, and flexible. Powers notes,

Paper itself is the inescapable metaphor, the paradigm, the tantalizing goal. The new medium will be deemed a success if and when it is no longer just an imitation of paper, but the real thing – when it becomes paper (62).

Presumably, this goal is unreachable (for now), and paper will remain the most important medium for reading.

Courtesy of the American Memory Project.

Still, popular online reading has a very particular style that is unlike printed media. Like my Dinosaur Comics dilemma, reading online invites distraction. To put it bluntly, I need lists, italics, and big pictures (hopefully LOLcats) to get me through a long piece of writing. If you browsed user-generated content sites like Digg or Reddit, you’d probably find that the most popular submissions are short paragraphs, videos, and pictures.

There might not be anything wrong with that. As I mentioned earlier, the internet invites an entirely different approach to reading. Michael Agger of Slate writes, “You, my dear user, pluck the low-hanging fruit. When you arrive on a page, you don’t actually deign to read it. You scan.”

Some people might have a problem with this kind of reading—this nonlinear, chaotic aggregation approach to information. There have been attempts to solve it. is a website designed to ease reading online by speeding up your ability. By pasting a block of text into the website, Spreeder spits out each individual word in a flash, so you can just stare at that one spot on the screen and read the whole article. The default setting is 300 words per minute, which can be painful on the eyes. If you blink or flinch from the screen, you’re likely to miss out on a sentence. Spreeder does enforce your concentration: unlike online reading in general, you no longer have the temptation of checking your email halfway through. As a book similarly invites concentration, Spreeder forces your attention to the words.

I read quite frequently, but I often don’t finish longer articles. If I had a copy of it in newspaper form, I’d probably read more. That said, online reading certainly has its perks and allows for a unique style of reading that the printed medium simply cannot handle. (I suppose that I must have some faith in the internet if I wrote this article.) Yet online reading will not eclipse the book; there are points of overlap for both, but the book has a single-minded focus that allows for difficult and long prose that cannot easily translate online.

At this point in time, I can’t imagine books withdrawing into obsolescence.

Jordan Barber is proud that the internet allows him to criticize, admonish, and irritate people from his own living room. And though this immense power only comes to the few, he promises to wield his hammer of judgment with a standoffish, thoughtful outlook.