Pages on a screen

Younger generations may multitask more as they read online and have several pages open at once. (Robert Neubecker)

I was sitting on the 'L' recently in one of the newer cars where the seats all face inward. The train was quieter and cleaner and had a bright digital ticker tape overhead that ran the name of the upcoming station and the time. The usual voice made its announcements: "State and Monroe is next. Doors open on the left at Monroe." Few people looked up or made conversation because just about everyone was reading.

The voice continued, "Please be considerate when talking on the phone or listening to electronic devices so as not to disturb other passengers." No worries; it was like a library in there.

When I look around, it seems that everyone is reading — only now people read on whatever device is handy.


This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.


We've split into two types of readers: Those (like me) who consciously carve out time to sit down and read, and those (like my children) who read online and do other things simultaneously. Other than eating and drinking, I simply cannot multitask while I read. My children, on the other hand, almost exclusively read online, in between checking email or Facebook or playing games. Their reading might be just as purposeful as mine, but it is just another option to choose, another thing to click on their devices.

My daughter, for example, will read part of a blog, then a few pages of a book, then on to email, then Facebook, and then back to the book. This happens quickly, in a span of less than 10 minutes. When I am on the computer, I might have only four applications open: email, Word, Facebook and iTunes, but definitely not a book. My kids and their friends might have 26 tabs open (no joke): email, Word, Facebook, iTunes, a book or two, several PDF files, Netflix, instant messaging, YouTube videos, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, and games (MMPORGs — massively multiplayer online role-playing games), as well as a variety of sites that might include celebrity gossip, online shopping (Etsy, Shopbop, ModCloth and Amazon), and Pinterest. Wheeew! What a rabbit hole! In fact, they tell me that it is almost impossible to have just email open. For them, multitasking is integral to reading.

Many students find it easier and more convenient to read a textbook chapter on a screen rather than in book format. Perhaps this is because schools now also are venues for multitasking reading and studying. I work at a university where students sit in classes with laptops open to pertinent material as well as to email and other sites that absorb their attention. The professor might be showing a PowerPoint projection, but the presentation is also uploaded on a scholastic forum, and the students can download it to their computer screens. They can then take notes directly on the individual PowerPoint slide.

Technology has not only changed how we read, but perceptions about what people are reading. If a book is selling 35 million copies, is translated into several languages and is listed on the best-seller lists, then we are aware that people are reading it. But on a more casual level, it is impossible to know what other people are reading when someone is using a tablet or e-reader. It's difficult to be a book snob that way. By sitting down with a book, I am declaring not only that I am reading, but that this is what I am reading. You can look over my shoulder. And only then can you judge a book by its cover.

Michelle J. Zimet is department coordinator for Germanic studies at the University of Chicago.