Yesterday the New York Times asked, in a page one story, if reading online really counts as reading. ("Literacy debate: Online, R U Really Reading?")
What seems inarguable is that the Internet is changing habits. What's questionable is how much that change matters.
On the encouraging side is the video of young Zach Sims who is entering Columbia University in the fall. Zach vacuums up more information from the Internet in an afternoon than most of us more traditional readers garner in a week. He tells us that his online forays leave him better informed about the world and I've no doubt that it's true.
On the discouraging side are the surveys that show things like a marked decrease in pleasure reading among young people. Also, there's the fact that US students scored lower on an international reading test than students of any other English-speaking nation.
The whole debate raises a multitude of interesting questions about the act of reading. What is the purpose of reading? Do we read to inform ourselves? Or do we read to expose ourselves to multiple viewpoints, to broaden our view of the world? Is that goal more successfully achieved when reading from books? What about novels? Does novel-reading make us better people? Or doesn't that depend on the novels read? Is it possible that we overvalue reading?
The reader comments on the NY Times website show a wide spectrum of opinion. "Much ado about nothing," opined one. Reading online is no more threatening than the fears we once entertained about comic-book reading, suggested another. Yet others hinted that it's basically the end of Western civilization as we know it.
We may have to wait till the Zach Simses of the world are all grown up and in charge before we get any real answers.