Reading habits and the impact of the internet

15 June 2011

Written by: Suzannah Macbeth

Both online and offline, writers are debating the role of the internet in our lives and in our communities.

The enormous part that the internet and new media have played and will play in the changing face of journalism is undeniable, yet sometimes our reaction seems a little overwrought.

The role of Twitter is debated daily. The death of bookstores is predicted and bemoaned regularly, most recently in yesterday’s comments by the Minister for Small Business Nick Sherry. Major newspaper companies like Fairfax struggle to keep up as the media environment changes. Two of Australia’s major literary journals collaborate on a blog, Meanland, that is dedicated to addressing the question of reading habits in an internet age.

Until this year, I have been mainly a reader of fiction, long-form journalism in print format, and the newspaper. The internet has been more about communication by email or social media than specifically about reading.

This year, that has changed. Studying a journalism course that focuses heavily on new media and online journalism, the internet features more regularly in my reading life. Journalism that is purely online and does not exist in print has become a necessary part of my studies, my reading and my research. upstart is one example of this.

As the debate continues to rage about where the internet will take us as a society, I feel the need to consider, at a basic level, what the internet means for me as an individual. Most importantly, has it changed me as a reader?

I have a reading journal that I started keeping at the age of five, as a primary school requirement. The first book recorded in it is The Black Stallion, except I missed the ‘k’ off ‘black’. Spread over the years and the pages are all the books I’ve read since, from Looking for Alibrandi to Sophie’s World, To Kill A Mockingbird, Rhubarb, Dirt Music, The Shadow of the Sun, Into the Woods the list goes on.

That old reading journal charts the changes in my reading habits – changes that have been occurring ever since I learnt to read alone. The journal stands as a record of the growth of a child’s reading into adulthood and through changing interests.

It’s focused on a particular kind of reading, the reading of books, though books are not the only element of literacy. As journalist Margaret Simons wrote in her Overland essay ‘Reading in an age of change’, text is everywhere – it’s on those ubiquitous cereal packets, it surrounds us in our day-to-day lives.

Into the myriad ways that we, as readers, consume text, the internet is now playing its part.

Penni Russon, an author of young adult fiction, wrote on her blog earlier this year about motherhood changing her as a reader. For a while, she thought it was the internet’s fault, but then she realised that spending time online was a response to the change in her life, a change that meant she could no longer read books with the same intensity that she had previously.

Like Russon, my reading habits reflect to a large extent what is going on in my life. Last year, while writing an Honours thesis about sailing, I read books about ships and journal articles about creative writing. This year, I’m mostly reading works of journalism, in many forms. Yes, the internet plays a larger part in my reading habits, but it is less a reflection of the internet itself and more a reflection of the inevitability of change.

For me, reading on the internet is often not unlike reading the newspaper. I read a bit of page one but then a story leads me to page six. I come back to the front page, and am again redirected elsewhere in the paper, this time forgetting to come back. It’s a game of hopscotch, from one story to the next.

Across the internet, my reading follows similar trails through hyperlinks, with one foot still in the hopscotch game, the original window of my browser open to pull me back – if I remember – from the tangent I’m losing myself on.

Admittedly, the internet has the ability to take us along an endless pathway, something a newspaper cannot do. We can read a shocking article in the paper and then move onto the next story in the game of hopscotch. Online, it is easy to prolong the agony, or the ecstasy – to read the comments, follow the links, Google for more.

Sometimes, both feet come off the hopscotch game, following links and distractions until you end up far away from the starting place; reading, commenting, sharing via Twitter, becoming ‘involved’.

Simons talked about how we might lose our ‘dark and private spaces’ to the collaborative reading and writing of the internet. But those spaces are still there, even online. There are things to read online that take one to unexpected places, to private places in one’s thoughts.

For me, those places prompt writing. My computer and my notebooks are full of the outpourings of thoughts, arising from those ‘dark and private spaces’ that one reaches into when reading, even if that reading is online.

Reading has always been about more than just books. 60 years ago, for some people it meant going over old newspapers hanging on the back of the outdoor dunny door, newspapers that were destined for a dirtier future. Reading is about books and cereal boxes, jam jars and letters. It’s about newspapers, or the stray clipping that someone cut from last week’s magazine. These days, it includes digitised books saved on e-readers such as Kindles (yes, these books are downloaded from the internet, but they are not of the internet). Reading includes the piles of text saved in malleable form on the computer hard drive.

And, of course, reading is also about the online environment – blogs, articles, tweets, and the list goes on.

The internet is part of this picture of all the places where text is located and where we, as literate people, find things to read. In the development of my reading habits across 20 years of reading life, the internet also has a part to play, but it is not the only agent of change.

One of my favourite childhood books, Jean Webster’s Daddy-long-legs, had this line: anyone ‘who can think straight along for forty-seven years without changing a single idea ought to be kept in a cabinet as a curiosity’.

We, and the society to which we belong, will continue to change, and so too our ideas and reading habits will develop. Two decades ago, this reflection may have been written by hand on the page of a diary with few opportunities to reach an audience. In a few years time, perhaps it will be offered in another format, on an as-yet unheard of platform. In spite of this, the internet will be just one factor of many as our reading habits continue to alter, as they have done for years.

Suzannah Marshall Macbeth is a Master of Global Communications student at La Trobe University and a member of the upstart editorial team. You can follow her on Twitter on @equineocean which is also the name of her blog.