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Review of Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World (2016) by ​Naomi S. Baron

Reviewed by Joshua Welsh

Publication Details

 OLOR Series:  ROLE Reviews
 Author(s):  Joshua Welsh
 Original Publication Date:  15 March 2018


Publication Note

This review was originally published in Research in Online Literacy, vol. 1, no. 1 (2018).

Resource Overview

Resource Contents

Review of Words Onscreen 

​Does reading onscreen (whether on a desktop, a tablet, or an E-ink display) encourage fundamentally different practices than reading in print? This is the question at the heart of Naomi Baron’s Words Onscreen. Ultimately, the answer Baron offers for this question seems to be “yes,” and much of the difference boils down to distraction.

Words Onscreen has much to offer in terms of the extensive research that it presents, the careful treatment that Baron gives to the economic factors affecting ePublishing, and the detailed insights into readers’ own preferences when it comes to print texts vs. eTexts. Baron’s goal is largely descriptive, and her book provides a thought-provoking foundation for students and scholars interested in developing their own, value-laden critiques of eReading and its possible consequences.

Baron’s central question is of crucial interest to anyone interested in the future of reading and writing. It is important to keep in mind that serious reading has been shown to aid in the development of human empathy. For example, Steiner-Adair and Barker explain that “activities such as reading books or other substantive content create complex arrays of neural pathways, the necessary rich weave of interconnectedness that develops empathy and allows it to deepen” (Steiner-Adair & Barker, 2013, p. 51 citing Maryanne Wolf’s Proust and the Squid). Baron argues convincingly that reading on screens comes with so much distracting baggage (for example, the temptation to multi-task or follow the many hyperlinks beckoning the reader to jump to the next topic) that many users are becoming addicted to internet use. Of course, Baron makes clear that eBooks are not the sole cause of internet addiction (controversial as that term may be); however, as with all digital technologies, it’s a question of time lost. When people spend more time using eReaders and succumbing to distraction, they spend less time in prolonged concentration on print books. Prolonged reading is a skill that takes practice. Unfortunately, more and more adults are losing this skill.

Baron offers a historical overview of the activity that is reading. Tempting as may be to see print-based reading as a stable activity that has gone unchanged since Gutenberg, Baron’s overview makes it clear that reading behavior has always been closely tied to the technologies and economics of publishing. Baron divides modes of reading into two broad categories: “reading on the prowl” and “continuous reading.” Reading on the prowl involves well-known tactics such as “skimming and scanning” (p. 22). Continuous reading, on the other hand, involves working through a text from beginning to end, which “provides the opportunity for ‘deep reading’—the kind you were asked to do in literature class” (p. 23). In many ways, the affordances offered by iPads and internet-connected eReaders can be seen as the next step in dealing with the information overload that was the impetus for print-based features, such as title pages, tables of contents, indexes, and page numbers, all of which were developed to make reading on the prowl more efficient. However, as Baron makes clear, more efficient reading on the prowl does not often lead to deeper reading. Baron points to worrisome statistics where students are using the search function to cite little more than the first few pages of texts that are distributed electronically.

Evolving genres such as periodicals, encyclopedias, abridgments, and book reviews (among many others) are all ways that writers have attempted to help readers deal with an ever-growing overload of information—shortening the amount of text to be read. But one wonders whether the even shorter texts and genres offered through digital technologies represent simply more of this same trend, or whether the affordances made possible by internet-connected reading devices (and the algorithm-driven choosing and writing that accompanies them) makes the act of digital reading somehow fundamentally different.

Baron also considers onscreen reading specifically, pointing to the key affordances of convenience and cost: “one area in which digital texts are an incontrovertible blessing is broadening access to the written word” (p. 71). Baron’s own analysis, however, seems to paint a blessing which is actually more mixed than incontrovertible. Clearly there are great advantages offered by open access and by the virtual delivery of books, but many of those advantages seem to be dampened by economic forces and by readers’ own reading habits and preferences. For example, Baron cites research showing that students tend to read less if material is distributed digitally. Ultimately, one has to ask whether the accessibility afforded by digital texts is worth the distraction and discouragement of deep reading that screens seem to encourage. Reading onscreen also seems to have accelerated the decline of slow reading. Baron argues quite convincingly that when “possessions” such as books, journals, and even photographs become digitized, we become less likely to return to them.

When dealing with books and eReaders as physical artifacts, Baron works “to move beyond arguments of nostalgia … to figuring out what it is about print and digital platforms that leads us to read on them in particular ways” (p. 153). Even more importantly, Baron attempts to demonstrate the “potential consequences of driving reading from print to screens” (153). Baron argues that the books on screens facilitate fast reading and search, not long-form reading and contemplation. Combine this with the one-off nature of digital texts, and Baron leaves her readers with nagging concerns about what culture would look like if it were created and shared exclusively online and on screens.

Ultimately, Words Onscreen invites us to rethink our own reading habits. By taking careful stock of what we gain in terms of convenience and access versus what we lose in terms of concentration and distraction, Words Onscreen offers an overview of reading (both digital and in print) that is both broad and deep. Undergraduates in courses that deal with a range of aspects involving rhetoric and technology would benefit from it. Graduate students and other scholars will find that it provides a solid foundation upon which to build more theoretically rich and critical work on digital reading.

Words Onscreen: ​The Fate of Reading in a Digital World

Naomi S. Baron. 2016. New York: Oxford University Press. [ISBN: 978-0-19-062416-3, 320 pages, $USD24.95]


Steiner-Adair, C., & Barker, T. (2013). The big disconnect: Protecting childhood and family relationships in the digital age. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers 

About the Reviewer

Joshua Welsh is an assistant professor in the English Department at Central Washington University. His research involves rhetoric and technology, with special interests in online technical writing pedagogy, intellectual property, open-source software, and mobile computing. He holds an MS (2009) and a PhD (2013) from the University of Minnesota

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