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Friday, Feb 8, 2008
Reading and literacy today.
Final broadsheet edition of the Guardian 2005 photo by Phil Gyford

Final broadsheet edition of the Guardian 2005 photo by Phil Gyford


This week I bought a copy of the Guardian Weekly, the digest of features and opinion pieces that’s sold as a magazine, which is probably almost the size of the newish tabloid size of the paper. It’s $4.95 in Australia. Usually I photocopy some of the articles from the newspaper collection at the Customs House public library in Sydney, or print out pages from the internet edition of the magazine. I have no great attachment to paper, but I want to be able to carry around stories and read them slowly, over the course of a week, not gulp them down in one sitting on the screen. I just don’t savor reading on the internet, but I want to. For the past few weeks I’ve had a couple of feature stories percolating. One is an update on the failure of digital reading devices to deliver a simple, ephemeral experience of reading. I had an e-mail from a friend who is an inventor of algorithms and technological devices, who said he still prints out and reads feature articles rather than reading them online. And I had a misty, sentimental yearning for great editing, to read long feature articles that have been shepherded and tightened by an expert editor. (I’m working on a celebration of the quality of writing in the Guardian blogs and features—watch this space.)


“A number of people wrote in late last year to ask what I thought of the NEA report on declining literacy, To Read Or Not To Read, in the light of my arguments in Everything Bad Is Good For You. I actually jotted down some pretty extensive notes about it, either for a blog post or an op-ed, but it was right before Christmas, and so they ended up sitting on my hard drive. But the other day, the Guardian asked me if I had anything to say about the issue, so I went back and wrote up this little essay that’s running today in the Guardian,” Steven Johnson wrote on his blog. The report showed that young readers have increasing literacy rates that drop off as they move into their teenage years. The report shows that reading of books drops off, but Steven Johnson points out that the type and style of reading being done on the internet, and the way that people are informed and engaged by what they read online isn’t measured.


The only reason the intellectual benefits are not measurable is that they haven’t been measured yet. There have been almost no studies that have looked at the potential positive impact of electronic media. Certainly there is every reason to believe that technological literacy correlates strongly with professional success in the information age.


I challenge the NEA to track the economic status of obsessive novel readers and obsessive computer programmers over the next 10 years. Which group will have more professional success in this climate? Which group is more likely to found the next Google or Facebook? Which group is more likely to go from college into a job paying $80,000 (£40,600)?


But the unmeasured skills of the “digital natives” are not just about technological proficiency. One of the few groups that has looked at these issues is the Pew Research Centre, which found in a 2004 study of politics and media use: “Relying on the internet as a source of campaign information is strongly correlated with knowledge about the candidates and the campaign. This is more the case than for other types of media, even accounting for the fact that internet users generally are better educated and more interested politically. And among young people under 30, use of the internet to learn about the campaign has a greater impact on knowledge than does level of education.”


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