- Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World by Naomi S. Baron
Though published by Oxford University Press, Naomi Baron’s Words Onscreen is not an academic monograph—or at least, not a typical one. The number of chapters (ten) is unusual, and their pacing, resulting from short sections, is almost staccato. This pacing can be pointed, as it is when, in the first chapter, Baron proceeds rapidly through a series of short, punchy definitions (from [End Page 99] “Reading and Texts,” “Books and EBooks,” and “ETextbooks” to “EReaders and Tablets,” “Do Readers like eReading?,” “The ‘Content versus Container’ Debate,” and “Affordances of Print and Screen”) only to conclude with the enormous question, “But what do we mean by ‘reading’?” At times, the pacing also propels the history Baron is writing, in which snapshots of the evolution of reading raise questions about whether or not reading “as such” has ever existed. But most often, these quick bursts make Words Onscreen a direct address to those whose participation in the fate of reading Baron seeks to understand. That effect, I think, is a striking embodiment of Baron’s main concern: that reading in a world saturated with the digital is increasingly a practice of direct address.
Direct address has long engaged texts and readers, of course, and is as familiar as the declaration with which Jane Eyre concludes the narration of her life, “Reader, I married him.” If it comes as something of a surprise in Bronte’s novel, the direct address in Baron’s hands provides a fitting comment on the digital and its own preoccupations with immediacy. The short, snappy rhetoric of Words Onscreen captures the way that the digital, associated with the conveniences of time, access, portability, and scale, has altered the face of reading by lessening some of the difficulties associated with its conditions. A chapter on readers “reshaping” writing, for instance, points to a history in which a technology of shortening texts reveals and produces readerly preferences for less time spent in a text. Print born, this history marks for Baron a fact that the digital moment has repeated: the sheer mass of what can be read demands that reading itself must adapt. This is an instance of “déjà vu,” she writes, because the digital affinity for short-form reading draws on print predecessors: the digital rush to publish short singles (Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Waterstone’s are all players) makes her think of the rapid emergence of periodical essays in the eighteenth century. Writing this history of continuity, Baron begins with browsing and speed reading as modes of “short reading,” before moving on to quick accounts of “shortened” texts—from broadsides, periodicals, encyclopedia entries, and anthologies to book reviews, serials, and condensations—that predate the digital turn. As it is throughout the book, her impulse in emphasizing continuity here is to understand what she calls the “virtues” of the digital while tempering the sense that the digital has wholly remade reading and its print history. Thus, even as cutting edge an instance as Amazon’s Kindle Serials reminds her of Dickens’ dramatic serial staging of Little Nell’s fate. Nonetheless, her long-view perspective is framed in prose bursts that Facebook- and Twitter-savvy readers would recognize. It is as if the caption for one of her chapters, “tl:dr” (“too long: don’t read”), has made its way into the book’s heart.
Some of this snappiness has to do with Baron’s implied readership— or perhaps more accurately, with her book’s implied potential use. Words [End Page 100] Onscreen follows the conventions of scholarly apparatus (with chapter endnotes, a substantial bibliography, and hefty index), but these are not central to the forward movement of the book, which focuses on the contemporary reading scene and the ways in which the allure of the digital has defined its place in national economies, traditional cultural practices, and global literacy. Indeed, if much of Words Onscreen reads like a tour of this landscape, cultivated...