In a recent article in Time, “Reading Literature Makes Us Smarter and Nicer,” Annie Murphy Paul convincingly argues what her title suggests. She argues that “deep reading,” which she defines as “slow, immersive, rich in sensory detail and emotional and moral complexity” is an enriching activity. I couldn’t agree more. Yet she distinguishes this “deep reading” in necessary opposition to “the often superficial reading we do on the web,” which, at best, is an unnecessary pronouncement about electronic media. A “deep reader” must be “protected from distractions,” she argues. Fair enough. But she insists that a physical book’s “lack of hyperlinks,” then, enables this kind of reading—a paper work “frees the reader from making decisions — Should I click on this link or not? — allowing her to remain fully immersed in the narrative.” But can the problem of a reader’s attention really be reduced to a choice of medium? <!--more--> First we must ask, is a physical book really free of these decision-making distractions? When I read a paper book, hardly a page goes by where I don’t think of looking up a place in an atlas, a name in an encyclopedia, or a word in a dictionary. Especially if I’m reading a book in a langauge I don’t speak well, the urge to pause my reading to look up words in a dictionary is immense. And putting down your book to look up a word in a dictionary can actually be more of a distraction than double-clicking on that word in an etext to summon an electronic dictionary. If the book you’re reading references another book, especially in the form of footnotes, endnotes, or in-text citations, it’s equally tempting to follow those virtual hyperlinks. In other words, any text is a natural hypertext for a reader with a sense of curiosity.
Second, in regards to hyperlinks, we should ask, are hyperlinks themselves a distraction, or is it rather the way they are displayed? If a physical book can be said to contain hundreds of virtual “hyperlinks,” then an electronic text also contains these—just some are clickable, and others are not. The distinction, then, is not between any essential qualities of electronic of physical texts, but between varieties of user interface design.
Some physical books try to free the reader from distractions by using endnotes instead of footnotes. An electronic text, similarly, might reduce the number of its clickable links in favor of more analog styles of hypertextuality, or it might design its clickable links in a way that is less distracting. There are any number of user interface design choices that affect the way the text is experienced, and the number of distractions it might induce. That is true of both electronic and physical texts. It would be a mistake to assume that the distracting effects of a hyperlink are essential qualities of the medium itself.
Third, is it necessarily a distraction to click on hyperlinks? Couldn’t an interrupted style of reading in which hyperlinks are followed ultimately benefit deep reading? Following hyperlinks, whether digital or analog, can be an immersive process—it tunnels deeper into the text. Whether that proves a distraction or not is entirely contingent on the content of the link’s target. If a hyperlink takes you to page with a completely unrelated subject that makes you forget what you were originally reading, we can fairly call that a distraction. If, on the other hand, the page on the other end of the hyperlink provides information that helps to illuminate the original text, then the link was not a distraction at all, but facilitated deep reading.
Finally, we should ask, is “the web” really a place of “superficial reading,” and the library a place of “deep reading”? Maybe for some this is true, but this entirely depends on the reader’s habits with regards to electronic and physical reading. Some readers, myself included, spend more hours in deep reading of electronic books than in superficial reading. Conversely, the paper works I’m more likely to read lend themselves more to a superficial reading style. It is a huge assumption to claim that the Internet is necessarily a place of superficiality. If you spend all your time on the Internet furiously scrolling through pictures of cats with silly captions, and all your time with paper doing serious scholarly reading, then it would be easy to assume that those are natural properties of those media. Yet the potential for “deepness” in both media are coextensive.