For more than 80 years, reading in print has been as natural for me as breathing. Someone writing about one of my books -- not e-books -- described me as a "voracious reader."
That's why I've been skeptical about the growing number of online courses that students are taking and the diverse digital reading they do on their own. How much of this kind of reading and learning, I wonder, gets and stays inside them?
I'm receiving credible answers from the author of a forthcoming book that should be a must-read for all Americans concerned with having future generations skilled in critical thinking.
The book, "Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World" is by Naomi S. Baron, a professor of linguistics and executive director of the Center for Teaching, Research and Learning at American University.
Fortunately, you can now learn much of the essence of her research from her article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, "How E-Reading Threatens Learning in the Humanities" (July 14).
As the title indicates, the scope of Baron's research goes beyond online courses: "With the coming of e-readers, tablets and smartphones, reading styles underwent a sea change."
In all the intense arguments about educational reform, I've seen very little about this "sea change" in reading and how it will affect the depth and range of thinking by future generations of Americans.
Baron continues: "For the past five years, I've been examining the pros and cons of reading on-screen versus in print. The bottom line is that while digital devices may be fine for reading that we don't intend to muse over or reread, text that requires what's been called 'deep-reading' is nearly always better done in print ... Digital reading also encourages distraction and invites multitasking."
Her survey research included university students here and in Germany and Japan. And "among American and Japanese subjects, 92 percent reported it was easiest to concentrate when reading in hard copy. The figure for Germany was 98 percent.
"Imagine wrestling with 'Finnegan's Wake' while simultaneously juggling Facebook and booking a vacation flight."
Baron's prime personal focus is the decline in in-depth digital-reading of the humanities, where readings "tend to be lengthy, intellectually weighty or both.
"The challenge of digital reading for the humanities is that screens -- particularly those on devices with Internet connections -- undermine our encounters with meaty texts. These devices weren't designed for focused concentration, reading slowly, pausing to argue virtually with the author, or rereading. Rather, they are information and communication machines, best used for searching and skimming -- not scrutinizing."
As for me, I continue to cherish physical books I can hold -- that I delight in writing in, arguing with the authors and rereading as I learn more about the subjects elsewhere.
I don't dig skimming through life.
Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights.