Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World

N S Baron, Oxford University Press, 2015, 320pp, £13.88 (hbk), ISBN 978 0 199 31 576 5

Reviewed by Ruth Durbridge, Michèle Moody

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Will babies born today ever read anything in print? This is a question frequently posed, and one that Professor Naomi S. Baron attempts to answer in her study of the reading revolution taking place across the globe. She wanders through the history and purposes of reading, emphasises the indubitable connectivity between reading and writing, and explores styles of reading such as 'on the prowl', all the while challenging perceptions of one's experience with words in print versus those on an ever-evolving screen. Accessible and enjoyable to read – even on holiday – this publication is a light-hearted yet earnest academic approach to the unknown future of books and other published material.

Highlighted as an attraction of ebooks is convenience, while constant distraction and 'the screen hurts my eyes' (p88) are among the cons. The observation that paper 'offers a sensory experience – of smell, of sight, of touch' (p153) rings especially true. Important personally to Baron is the ability to write in the margins of a printed book. Ebooks allow notes – but is it really the same?

Notable attention is given to circumstances for students in countries other than the USA. Baron details her own research into the changing reading habits of students from the USA, Japan and Germany, and reveals some interesting findings. For instance, Japanese students do less 'multitasking' while e-reading than their counterparts, and a higher percentage prefer using digital devices (they are avid texters) but overall they still prefer 'p' to 'e'. Thanks to the intricate and mind-blowing nature of the kanji and kana scripts, the handwritten word is unlikely to die in Japan just yet.

Heartfelt descriptions of the growing ability of people in the poorer parts of Africa to access information cheaply through mobile phones made me stop and think. As copy-editors and proofreaders, we read words both on and off screen – but many people do not have that choice, and their lives are overwhelmingly enhanced through digital options. The overall message is clear: embrace and lead the digital reading revolution while not discarding the many practicalities and luxury of print.

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