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Reading: Screens or Paper?

We are a reading family.  It’s been that way since the words of Goodnight Moon and The Big Red Barn echoed through the house as our children were young.  One of my favorite memories of reading is in 2007, when the last Harry Potter book came out.  My son Ryan could not wait.  He was, after all, a classmate of Harry Potter.  He and Harry were almost the same age as Harry went through Hogwarts and Ryan went through Malibu High School.  Ryan turned me on to Harry Potter after I witnessed him read the first book for the fourth time.  “What is this book you keep reading?”  I asked.  “Only the greatest book every written about the greatest wizard ever,”answered my son.  I read it and was hooked too.
We were on vacation in Arkansas when the last Harry Potter book came out.  We had a big day planned on the boat at Greers Ferry Lake.  But on this day, reading was going to be part of our lake experience.  We were in Wal-Mart at 6 AM on the day it came out, and Ryan started reading immediately in the back seat as we drove toward the lake.  He finished around 11:00 AM and handed the book to me.  I finished around 6:00 that evening, and we talked the rest of the night about the book.  Yes, it was a little odd that we had our noses in a book in the midst of heat and beauty, but we took breaks, water skiing and swimming throughout the day.  But to share a book, love a book, and talk about a book is one great example of a life well led.
Ryan on Greers Ferry
Since I received my first iPad on Father’s Day 2010, I have become a digital reader as well as a paper reader.  I believe there are advantages to both, but at this point, I primarily read digitally.  My consumption of books has doubled since I became a digital reader.  My consumption of information has increased multiple-fold.  OK I’ll say it, I love reading on my iPad.  It has been a game changer for me.  I get that it’s not for everybody.  My younger son is a 12 year-old who loves paper books and his digital to paper ratio is probably 1:10.  I don’t judge.  I do question why the heck he thinks that way, but I have let it go.  For now.  The bottom line is : we all have personal preferences.
Naomi Baron recently published an article in the Huffington Post, Why Reading on a Screen is Bad for Critical Thinking.  It is based on her Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World book.  It’s an aggressive title on a critical topic.  The world of digital reading is still relatively new, and we have much to learn.  We are absolutely correct to study and learn about it.
Sometimes, critical reading is not at all necessary.  When I am reading about the Dodgers, reading a thriller book, or reading my Twitter feed, I certainly do not need to read critically all of the time. Scanning, reading for understanding, and then moving on is perfect for digital reading.  I don’t think anyone would question that.
But when I read for deeper understanding, there are certain  actions I must take, whether it be digitally or with paper.  I cannot read for understanding without writing while I am doing it.  When I am reviewing a dissertation, or when I am reading a book on leadership or learning, I want to make sure that (1) I truly understand what is being stated, (2) I think about how that impacts my learning and my life and (3) I remember what is most important in that reading selection.
Sometimes I will print out the document, and go at it with a pen in hand.  I am underlining, circling, taking notes, writing questions and completely engaged with the text as I read it.  When complete, I scan the annotated document back in to my Evernote account to make sure I can access it at any time.  So even when I read paper, I am at my best when I can access it digitally.
But more often, I will use digital platforms that support highlighting and annotating.  Highlighting could not be easier digitally.  You have a multi-color highlight set with you at all times.  Annotating takes a little practice, but again, it works beautifully in the right platforms.  If I cannot highlight or annotate easily (like with the Kindle or PDF Express apps) then I cannot read closely using a digital device.  But if I can, and in 90% of the cases I can, then that is what I most often do.
The biggest advantages for digital reading for me are that (1) I can access a massive amount of information on demand, and (2) I have access to everything I have ever read, the text, my highlights and my annotation, anywhere, anytime.  That to me is a dream come true and I love living that dream.
If E-reading had existed back in 2007, the story of reading the last Harry Potter would have been a little bit different.  We would not have had to go to the store.  We could have woken up and purchased it immediately.  We could both be reading at the same time, stopping to discuss as we read along.  We could have shared ideas, both finished by noon, and played together the rest of the day, intertwining our play with conversations of the half-blood prince.  It was still a great day, but it could have been even better.
The questions asked in Naomi Baron’s article are spot on.  I wish the title could have been: Challenges in Reading on a Screen When It Comes to Critical Thinking.  The point I will most certainly concede is that if you cannot stay focused on digital reading, and you treat reading an important book or piece like you treat your Twitter feed, then book reading is the way for you.  I believe it takes practice and discipline, and I believe that ‘mere mortals’ are more than capable of achieving that discipline.
I don’t judge either way.  I do have a strong personal preference, and I know the way the world is going.  If we don’t learn to read critically using digital devices, then we are going to be in trouble.  Let’s acknowledge the challenges, and find ways to address them successfully.