And for Extra Credit: Read a Physical Book

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Photo by João Silas on Unsplash

The idea came to mind as I was reading an old Atlantic article, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?," by the tech writer Nicholas Carr. The internet, he feared, had rewired his brain: "I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. … That’s rarely the case anymore."

I wondered: Could I engineer the opposite result for my students — reared on cellphones and laptops — if I asked them to read a book in a physical format? That is, would they be distracted from their digital devices by reading a hardcover or paperback book — the ultimate firewalled medium?

Our students are multitasking masters. They easily text friends while reading an e-book or maintaining eye contact with someone. But even for expert multitaskers, texting while holding a print book can be awkward — they flip closed if you remove a hand, and you lose your place. But more than testing their dexterity, I wanted to see how the experience of reading in print would affect their digital lives.

So I offered extra credit in my "Technology and Social Change" course if students read a physical book for their required paper. They could select any volume on technology, social media, or philosophy for the paper. But if they were seeking the extra credit, they had to (a) bring the actual book to class for verification purposes and (b) write about the experience of reading a book in print.

The 26 students who opted in chose books like Andrew Keen’s The Internet Is Not the Answer and Danah Boyd’s It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. (All 26 gave written permission to use their responses and first names in this article.) This simple assignment was illuminating. Many students had not read a physical book since at least middle school. Based on their emails, I tabulated and organized their reactions into six broad categories:

  • 92 percent enjoyed the experience of reading in print.
  • 73 percent found their cellphones a distraction, interrupting their reading.
  • 27 percent said reading in print had helped them focus and complete the assignment.
  • 27 percent said they seldom read books — in any physical or digital format — in college.
  • 15 percent found reading a print book to be relaxing; it had a calming effect on their minds and/or improved their sleep.
  • 15 percent felt a sense of accomplishment and pride as they approached the end of their book.

For me, the responses affirmed the power of print versus the programming of technology. Of course, I could not verify that students had actually read a print book, rather than bringing one to class and then using a digital copy.

But their written testimonies rang true and were filled with personal confessions about how tethered they feel to their distracting devices:

The unrelenting pings proved annoying. "I found it very hard to stay focused, and eventually would get upset and put my phone on silent out of my reach," said Sydney, about trying to text a friend as she flipped the pages of her print book (Man’s Search for Meaning,by the Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl).

In that moment, a new educational world opened up to her, one in which she said she "was 100 percent focused on reading, as my phone and laptop was out of sight." Free of digital distractions and immersed in her book, she started highlighting and writing notes on earmarked pages. "This was super-helpful in writing the book-review paper," she said.

Almost all of my mostly Generation Z students felt liberated by silencing their iPhones and Androids. They revitalized their relationship with print books, ignoring the insistent notifications that beckoned. In a few cases, students actually left the premises, book in hand, to escape from the tension that the mere presence of a cellphone or laptop elicited. For example:

  • "Throughout my time reading The Happiness Hypothesis, by Jonathan Haidt, I will admit that I was very distracted by my phone, laptop, noises outside my apartment, and my roommates popping in and out of my room," wrote Clare. "I needed to make a change or find a better place to read, or else I wasn’t going to finish reading this book in time. So, given that, I decided to go to the library." She found a quiet spot there. "I went for an hour or two each day … and sure enough I finished it within a week."
  • At first, Molly, who also read The Happiness Hypothesis, kept her phone near her while wading through the dense book, which covers philosophical ideas since ancient times. However, she said, "I often found myself not comprehending the reading because I was thinking about checking my phone — even when it wasn’t in plain sight." She started leaving it in a different room while she read. It made her realize, "I’ve become so attached to my phone that when I don’t have it, I continuously think that I’m missing something."

Other students didn’t eliminate digital distractions so much as control them in order to better absorb the content as they read:

  • Julia, for example, was one of several students who plugged in earphones to listen to music while reading but turned her phone screen down so that she wouldn’t see the alerts. She checked her phone only between chapters.
  • Another student, Blake, set a timer on his phone that prevented him from picking it up while he read his book (Nicholas Negroponte’s Being Digital). "I was able to get my reading goals out of the way, but still had the gratification of holding my phone, after 45 minutes or so," he wrote. The experience made him aware of his own digital dependency: "From my bedroom, to my living room, and kitchen, there’s such a difficulty with separating my personal life with social-media influences."

Print has some advantages educationally. Who knew? Many of my students enjoyed the tangible experience of holding a book in their hands — the feel, the heft of it. Some said reading a print book had helped them learn the material better than reading it electronically would have done.

  • "Being able to use a pen to mark sentences or paragraphs that resonated with me and helped me take in the information more clearly," said Lexie, who read Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other. When it came time to write her paper, she found that she recalled information better and appreciated being able to go back and look at what she had marked down.
  • Reading felt more authentic, said Yean, who read a print version of Alan B. Albarran’s The Social Media Industries. "When reading a virtual copy," he said, "I feel like I am just browsing through the web for information. I do not absorb information as well because it feels like a chore to me."
  • E-books "just don’t deliver the same sort of visual and tactile satisfaction I get from reading a physical book," said Amber, who also read Boyd’s It’s Complicated. "It was actually quite a relief to be able to sit down with a physical book with no distractive notifications. … I was able to dive right in and get lost in a book without even realizing it."

Reading a print book, it turns out, is actually enjoyable. Students found it relaxing. They got a sense of accomplishment in watching as their bookmarks got closer and closer to the end. It even helped some sleep better. Witness:

  • "Reading a paperback book really relaxes the mind and takes you away from all of your surroundings," wrote Giles, who reviewed James Barrat’s Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era. "To be honest, I can’t remember the last time I read a book that wasn’t online." Without the incentive of extra credit, he said, he would have read an e-book. "So, thank you," he wrote, "because this experience really did help me to remember how much I enjoy reading real books."
  • "I always made sure I read my book for about 20 to 30 minutes right before bed," Neil wrote, after readingMindless: Why Smarter Machines Are Making Dumber Humans. "Before reading this book, I would almost always be looking at my phone or laptop right before bed." He plans to keep trying to read a physical book at night, "as I noticed great improvements in the amount of sleep I was getting, which really improved my overall life."
  • "You feel like you actually accomplish something when you read a physical book, front to back," wrote Cory, of reading The Glass Cage. Technology, he noted, has a way of making you feel as if the information you are reading "will never end."

Some students remarked that they rarely read books in any format. One even acknowledged that this was "the first book I have read, cover to cover, for some time." She recalled reading books before college, but acknowledged that she spends "a lot more time on my phone playing games and watching Netflix." This experience changed her perception about that and rekindled her love of reading.

Other students weren’t sure they had enjoyed the physical experience of reading a hard copy. "I’m torn whether I like it or not," said Samuel, who read John Seabrook’s Nobrow: The Culture of Marketing, the Marketing of Culture, "because I am not a fan of how uncomfortable it is to hold a book. But at the same time, a book page is a lot easier to read than a screen." Still, he found it satisfying to know that he could focus on reading and resist the urge to check his phone.

And how did the experiment affect my course? It enriched our discussions throughout the semester.

In Carr’s essay about what the internet might be doing to our brains, he wrote, "The kind of deep reading that a sequence of printed pages promotes is valuable not just for the knowledge we acquire from the author’s words but for the intellectual vibrations those words set off within our own minds." We create "quiet spaces" in our psyche, he noted, by "the sustained, undistracted reading of a book, or by any other act of contemplation" that fosters original ideas and associations.

That was the experience of Alaina, who read Sherry Turkle’s The Second Self: "Hours could pass before I’d put it down at times. One thing about reading the book for this class was the topic was thought-provoking rather than entertaining."

In the end, most students acknowledged the insistent nature of cellphones that interrupted their education on a residential campus. Many also experienced the thrill of being immersed in the world of print and ideas. A few had epiphanies about the importance of the university library.

In a class about technology and social change, perhaps the biggest change from this extra-credit experiment was in the students themselves.

Michael Bugeja is a professor of journalism and communication at Iowa State University

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