If you’re someone who reads print storybooks to a beloved toddler or youngster, your darling may have asked you to “please pause” the book for some kind of break. This use of the word “pause” derives from a digital vocabulary where nearly everyone swipes, pauses, and scrolls as they move through screens that display text and images on digital devices—computers, book readers, tablets, and smartphones.
The world of texts when I began teaching college composition and introduction to literature courses in the early 1980s included words and images displayed on overhead projectors or read from microfiches, of pages made fuzzy or streaky by photocopiers, or handouts damp and redolent with the distinctive smell of mimeograph ink.
But when you did serious reading and learning, you learned from books and textbooks that consisted of printed pages bound between two covers, sewn or glued to a spine.
By 2000, however, the digital age had taken root, and I was teaching students who had grown up in front of screens with video game controls and a mouse in their hands.
I often felt my efforts to transmit the reading, critical thinking, and writing skills necessary for the economic survival of my students and for the preservation of Western civilization were often in vain—not just because of the widespread collapse of learning under the weight of self-esteem education but because of shortened attention spans and a seeming disinterest in the written word, both of which I attributed to over-immersion in computer technology.
Now I am wondering: Won’t this generation and those coming behind ultimately drown in the ubiquitous din of gadget vibrations, beeps, rings, and bings? Won’t they sink beneath the 24/7 tide of screens with their waves of streaming music, movies, TV shows, YouTube videos, and news, along with IMs, selfies and tweets?
In other words, aren’t longer attention spans being destroyed by the internet? How can anyone develop sophisticated research skills, essential to advanced critical thinking and creativity, if they are hopping like a grasshopper from hyperlink to hyperlink?
Before answering take into account the fact that “book learning” has not disappeared but is thriving among the very generation one would have thought to forsaken it. Millennials — the generation of young people between the ages of 18 and 29 – prefer reading from books more than they like reading from screens.
They like what people my age—the Baby Boom generation—mean by real books. The physical book with heft, a spine and covers, with paper pages of print to mark up, highlight and write on, to stain, blot and smudge, to crease and bend.
And when it comes to textbooks, many Millennials would take print editions over e-books any day. They dislike their world of omnipresent distracting digital noise. They’re aware of their susceptibility to those alluring hyperlinks that lead to time-devouring digital pit stops, something that can limit higher-level online reading and learning.
Michael S. Rosenwald reports all this and more in “Why digital natives prefer reading in print. Yes, you read that right,” (Washington Post, 2/22/15). Rosenwald draws on a multitude of sources, as well as the insights of American University linguist Naomi S. Baron, who having researched the Millennials’ relationship to books now has deep reservations about the push for digital learning, including reading, across the spectrum of American education.
Rosenwald cites two interesting findings from the Pew Foundation: Scores of Millennials not only haunt our public libraries, but they read print books more than any other age cohort in the U.S. — and all for the reasons people my age still love books, despite the sometimes budgetary necessity of purchasing e-books that also make for light traveling.
Everything Rosenwald reports about Millennials and their love affair with books I find deeply reassuring, since I came to age in what was still a dominantly print culture.
First is the delightful discovery that Millennials love the smell of books—something that many of them probably didn’t grow up with as Naomi Barton notes. Smell, of course, is the most evocative of our senses. I’ve always loved the smell of books, from the time I was a youngster with regular trips to the library and then through my years of inhabiting high school, college, and then graduate school libraries for both study and pleasure, which often were the same thing.
These days used bookstores and the likes of The Strand in New York City with their aisles overflowing with books and the smell of paper do the trick. New books always had a different smell, but places like Barnes & Noble – though I’m glad they’ve survived – have no smell at all.
Then there’s the overall physicality of books, which also appeals to Millennials, and which is actually a complex topic. I’m encouraged by Rosenwald’s report that students do what my generation did: haul books around in backpacks, including someone Rosenwald spotted trekking about campus with Alexi De Tocqueville’s nearly 1,000-page Democracy in America, among other tomes.
There’s something important, I think, in actually carrying around the weight of knowledge, insights, and wisdom from across the ages in volumes strapped in a bag across your back.
According to Rosenwald, today’s college students “like the feeling” of books, something every boomer I know also loves. I retain the acute childhood memory of well-worn popular titles disappearing from the stacks of our public library only to return rebound in covers of heavy-duty buckram cloth. I loved the very touch of those covers because they had a texture similar to oilcloth.
Local university librarians tell me that the volumes in their libraries include covers made of cloth, leather, moleskin, and buckram cloth, as well as covers formed from pasteboard and of heavy cover stock. Their shelves and displays also hold books with dust jackets, plain and cellophane-covered, along with paperbacks and books with laminated covers.
This whole array of tactile experience is available to students of four-year colleges and universities. Users of public libraries, however, are likely to be limited to paper and cellophane covers, and when popular titles wear out they’re tossed and librarians then re-order them. Still, there’s nothing quite like the feel of a book in one’s hands and the anticipation of where it might take you.
The idea of the book itself is deeply embedded in Western culture. The medieval world, for example, understood the universe as consisting of two books: the Book of Nature and the Book of God—the Bible. Humans were to read both. The Bible was available in manuscript for the small part of the populace that was literate.
The illiterate could “read” the Bible through cathedral carvings and windows with their beautiful stained-glass depictions of events from Scripture. And as early as the fifth century, the genre called mystery plays emerged with their dramatizations of salvation history, initially with summarized translations from the Latin but finally in performances in the vernacular languages.
We still have all these forms of “reading” available and more. Like the Millennials, I do my share of digital reading, including online research, mostly of a spot nature. (Yes, I sometimes cruise Wikipedia, as fallible as it is.) I find online dictionaries and thesauruses (thesauri) indispensable.
I’ve just retired from teaching, and I can report, like Rosenwald, that today’s students usually take lecture notes on their laptops or tablets. I admit, Millennial-like, to using my iPhone not only for grocery lists but to text and to take pictures and videos that I email and share through social media. The notes function of my cellphone also comes in handy to record verse fragments as well as any other inspirations from the muse when I’m away from my laptop.
Unlike the Millennials, however, I don’t take the internet with its range, speed and convenience for granted. Because I didn’t grow up with this technology, I can entertain the thought that someday the whole grid and web could go down, that magical cloud go poof, and I wonder not only “What if?” but answer “paper, pencils, books, and cursive” for starters.
But back to the physicality of books. Books are meant to be talked to and talked back to. Reading should be a dialectical process. Almost any seasoned college writing instructor can tell you about Mortimer Adler’s storied first edition of How to Read a Book (1940), which spells out how to have a conversation with a book. I, for one, found it invaluable in teaching students how to annotate a text; that is, how to mark up, underline, and doodle your way into a discussion with nearly any book.
It’s nearly impossible — because it’s incredibly laborious — to have a conversation with an online text. Just try annotating on a Kindle, for instance. And science and math don’t count, as Rosenwald points out.
For conversation the physical book is essential. That’s another reason I find it so exciting that Millennials have discovered the power of doodling, asking questions, marking and writing in books, also called “marginalia” (n., plural) for their placement in the margins of a page.
The truth is that books are not meant to be virginal. Just take a gander through online images and look at the doodles, notes, and informal drawings that inhabit medieval manuscripts and earlier writing media. In medieval texts produced by monasteries, they serve not only as commentary on the text at hand but are also memos of complaints from the copier-monks about the boring nature and office conditions of their work.
Marginalia have an illustrious history, with examples in papyri going back to ancient Egypt. Because of the point-counterpoint nature of annotation, Millennials tell Rosenwald they love when they can afford to rent or buy used print-edition textbooks loaded with the markings and notes of students who came before them.
Through annotation, people learn to analyze and synthesize. People of any age can become competent and even skilled critical and creative thinkers and effective conversationalists and communicators as well.
The internet in itself, with its open-response blogs and platforms like Facebook, where comments can rapidly descend into rants, simply cannot replace or replicate the link between the written word of books and serious, sophisticated oral communication. (I distinguish all that from online publications like this one that encourage serious discussion and review responses before posting them.)
In other words, Guttenberg is not out the window or down Orwell’s 1984 “memory hole.” It’s not for nothing, after all, that Steve Jobs, the quintessential boomer and student of calligraphy, forbade Apple employees to ever explain anything via the PowerPoint. (His ban didn’t just spring from his animus towards Microsoft.)
Jobs mandated the white board, not only because it requires a person to talk while writing and adding those doodles and what’s-its that point out examples, emphasize, and indicate and connect processes but because it invites, encourages, and records creative collaboration. For all these reasons, the white board has become ubiquitous throughout corporate America.
Lurking behind the white board is the fact that reading, writing, thinking, creating, and communicating successfully are actually one interrelated process. That’s the kind of education we members of the boomer generation received and should be deeply grateful for.
So I am not just happy but elated that Millennials love writing in their books. One student interviewed by Rosenwald says he likes “scribbling in the margins” and “folding a page corner” because it “[builds] a physical map in [his] mind of where things are.” It’s no surprise to me that researchers, according to Rosenwald, have discovered that even paragraph length and page arrangements are indispensable for “comprehension.”
For a derailed medievalist like myself with a passable knowledge of Western civilization, the physicality of understanding and memory is old news. Books are essentially storehouses from which the human mind, using its visual sense, can retrieve information and knowledge.
We moderns—Boomers and Millennials—use books in the same way the Romans in the antique world created mental visual-spatial memory palaces and mnemonic cities with “loci” or places within them where they stored everything necessary to remember for life, culture, and civilization.
Anyone who browses bookstores or yard sales for books knows that books talk about everything from the microcosm to the macrocosm and beyond. The ambitions of books, like human beings, are both limited and limitless. From cuneiform business records to pictographs to alphabets, human beings have always been writers, even transferring our oral memories to epics such as Gilgamesh, the Iliad and Odyssey, and the old Norse sagas.
From the practical skills and arts such as cooking and making, to the liberal arts of philosophy, literature, history, from religious teachings such as Sacred Scripture and the Talmud, to ancient and modern encyclopedias, books preserve human knowledge, art, even wisdom—all the things that make us, us—even in a visual and screen culture such as ours.
To the Millennials I say, “Welcome to our world. Let’s keep talking as we turn the pages together.”