A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors


The state of (e)reading

Commonweal publisher Tom Baker passes along the news today that fully one-third of American adults now own a tablet computer (like an iPad or Kindle Fire), which is nearly double the number recorded last year.

Why is this worth a mention on this blog? In part because of our recent redesign: The Commonweal site has been rebuilt to adjust to whatever device—PC, phone, tablet—you might be reading it on, and more of you are using tablets. Of course, some readers get more excited about this kind of thing than others (full disclosure: I am among the 66 percent of adults who do not own a tablet, although I have been making much more use of my phone to visit not just Commonweal but many other sites as well). But this news on usage comes at about the same time as a couple of other items on, for lack of a better term, e-reading.

First is Farhad Manjoo’s piece in Slate, the promisingly headlined “You Won’t Finish Reading This Article,” which reveals that few who begin to read a story online actually finish it; people steadily bail out (“bounce,” in the parlance) as they scroll down:

Data shows that readers can’t stay focused. The more I type, the more of you tune out. And it’s not just me. It’s not just Slate. It’s everywhere online. When people land on a story, they very rarely make it all the way down the page. A lot of people don’t even make it halfway. Even more dispiriting is the relationship between scrolling and sharing. [Data] suggest that lots of people are tweeting out links to articles they haven’t fully read. If you see someone recommending a story online, you shouldn’t assume that he has read the thing he’s sharing. …

Maybe this is just our cultural lot: We live in the age of skimming. I want to finish the whole thing, I really do. I wish you would, too. Really—stop quitting! But who am I kidding. I’m busy. You’re busy. There’s always something else to read, watch, play, or eat.

It would thus seem to follow that people who read online retain or comprehend relatively little of what they click on. But Andrew Sullivan today points to studies showing the opposite. Researchers invited ninety students (average age: nineteen) ten short passages of text:

One third of them read on paper (A4 size, Times New Roman font), 30 of them read on a second gen. Kindle (6 inch screen), and the remainder read via a pdf reader on a computer monitor. Five of the passages were factual (biographies) and five were excerpts from literary fiction. After each passage, the students answered five to six multiple-choice comprehension questions. They could take as long as they wanted to read each passage, but there was no going back to the text once they started answering the questions.

Overall accuracy was at around 75 per cent and, crucially, there was no difference in comprehension performance across the three conditions. This was true whether reading factual or narrative passages of text. “From an educational and classroom perspective, these results are comforting,” the researchers concluded. “While new technologies have sometimes been seen as disruptive, these results indicate that students’ comprehension does not necessarily suffer, regardless of the format from which they read their text.”

Another “but” (and it seems to be a substantial one): the passages were only about 500 words in length. This post is already a hundred words longer than that. Many on this blog can be much longer. And stories from the print edition of the magazine….

What’s your approach to reading online? Do you tend to skim, skip, or “bounce”? Does the length of an online article affect your decision of how to read it? Does the medium (print vs. electronic) affect your ability to retain or comprehend what you read? And if you’re a parent, professor, or teacher, are you noticing anything about the habits of your e-reading children and students, or their ability to retain and comprehend?

My commute provides a lot of time for reading, and on the subway I always choose a book or magazine over my phone. Today I took note of someone reading a hardcover edition of Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding—not because of the book, but because it was a book, apparently the only other one aside from mine on the car I was in. There were no newspapers or magazines in sight. But there were plenty of tablets. 

About the Author

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s digital editor.



Commenting Guidelines

  • All

There has always been a tendency for readers to give up on a story if it doesn't grab them right away. That's why journalism professors and newspaper editors want reporters to put important new information in the lead paragraph. And why novelists often begin with a snappy sentence that will draw readers in.

But it isn't just print and new technology. The same thing happens with movies and television shows. Probably happened to some of the old Greek dramatists that didn't make the cut.



Dominic, You did not mention Kindle (or other similars) which I have found to be remarkably productive in reading the NY Times and books. Once you get out of I have to have the book in my hand fetish, one experiences, mirabile dictu, great efficiency. The tablet is larger than the phone with better graphics though one does not have to rely on wifi with a 4g phone. . True, any device is not as congenial to read with. Except for the kindle.  However, the destop or laptop is better for taking an online course and reading blogs. 

Wonderful times we are in. Now if we can just stop the greed and get everybody working.

I usually read Commonweal on an iPad.  I read it usung the Safari browser that comes with the iPad.  I like the new website about the same as the old one except for one thing.  The old site allowed me to enlarge the text size but for some reason I am unable to do that with the new site.  I do not know about others but the new site is starting to make me feel my age - the tiny type is difficult to read!  Can this be changed?

John O'D.

I'm not on an iPad, but I'm using Safari, and I can adjust text size with the Zoom In and Zoom Out commands on the View menu, keystrokes  + and  -

I read blog posts and skim select articles on online news sites on my laptop. (I read the full articles, but just read less of them than I would with a paper.)  That's about as many words as I can handle online. I don't read  e-books. My husband has a Nook Tablet  (the most recent version; we bought an N2A chip for to get all of the Android apps. It works just great). 

The one thing I ike a lot about online new sites is the opportunity for reader comments. I think those comments often enrich and give a dfiiferent perspective on the origignal article. 




I have a Nook with which I read books.  I've definitely been buying more books since I bought it - it saves me running out to a bookstore.  I also read books the old-fashioned way, as we're frequent public library customers.  (Our library makes it harder for Nook owners than Kindle and iPad owners to check out ebooks - that's the only Nook drawback I've experienced so far).

I use old media or my notebook computer to read newspaper and magazine articles.   I don't think my reading habits are any different either way.


Love the Kindle.  Convenient to carry around.  Great for reading fiction, particularly mysteries.  

My Kindle (plain, not Fire) is not great for reading non-fiction, because illustrations are too small and gray.

(I like writing for Kindle: )

I think Amazon provides a great service.  Its detractors are unpersuasive, imho:

I don't read magazines or newspapers on Kindle, for many reasons, but I like reading articles from periodicals on my MacBook Air.  Agree with Irene about reader comments.  (A shame the new format here elimated paragraphing from all the old comments.)  I also like customer reviews of books and other products.  Very helpful, imho.

The length of an article does not bother me.  If I'm interested in the topic, the longer the better.  The importance of enticing lead paragraphs came long before computers, e-readers, etc.




 I often quit articles that are unnecessarily repetitive or include a lot of not very relevant detail.  Too much good stuff out there to waste time on the boring.

Reading print newspapers shapes my habits. I read the headlines; about half I skip because I am not interested or I already know as much as I need to know. The other half, I start with the top and read to the end of about one-third. The other two-thirds, I read as far as it informs or interests me, then I quit.

Magazines: Read the whole article if it interests me; skip the rest. Increasingly I skip much in the New Yorker but do the cartoons, Talk of the Town, and anything by my favorite authors. NYR: read the whole of articles that interest me, no more than 25 percent of each issue. Commonweal, read much of what interests me on-line, but still look carefully through the print issue.

Kindle is okay for fiction, but not so great for everything else. I find note-taking laborious (just need a pencil for a book). I have wound up buying books that I have on my Kindle because it so cumberous to retrieve "notes," and impossible to flip back and forth between pages.

Though it varies, a good deal of what is currently published in any format is repetitive and/or  non-news. What has gone missing in the new world is the gate keeper, editors who say yea or nay to articles and who then edit with an eye to coherence, unanswered questions, etc. The consequence is a lot of junk news, junk opinion, and junk articles. And then there's the problem of faux news produced not by reporters but by sites that aggregate the news. In this matter, the New York Times still produces news (good) surrounded by more and more stuff...

That most people don't finish what they start reading on-line is a good sign; it shows a discerning mind.

At my age, reading habits hardly reflect the future of printed words. FWIW, though, the only non-paper stuff I have ever read is on a computer screen. And I have rarely gone beyond the first page, if the magerial is paginated, or to the point where I have to click instead of scroll to continue. But if the first page is really good, I print out the whole thing and read it on paper like a book or a government report.

I can be happy that way and can't imagine myself using a Kindle or its like. I do get annoyed when the publisher (or "content provider" as we, ugh, say now) makes my finding things or scrolling them harder in order to accommodate the one-third of first users in his or her audience. But people like I will soon pass away leaving the media free to complete their triumph over the message.

I have an old Kindle, mostly used for reading in waiting rooms and loaded up with amusing old favorites that cost practically nothing. I prefer not to use it to read new books, since I like to annotate  as I go, and often find myself looking  back and forth at passages of special interest. It is hard to do that so well on the Kindle.

 I just got an ipad mini, and have used it to look at Commonweal when out and about,  but I prefer to read some  items on my desktop when they appear there and later, at my leisure, take the time to go over the print edition pretty thoroughly when it-- eventually --arrives.  

I read  through the postings on the blog, and rarely bail out early, but Ifind that I often skip-- in my first reading,anyway- -some of the embedded links that  seem less than necessary to getting the full picture. I may pick up on those when checking back to see how comments are running.

I like the way comments are being solicited on articles, and the way the conversation on the website as a whole is beginning to broaden out.  But please don't neglect to respond to breaking news items on the blog. That has always been a real strength. of Commonweal's web presence.  

I have a degenerative eye disease and can't read regular books much anymore but I read everything online on my iMac (all the fonts made bigger) and I can now read books again with the kindle, also by making the fonts bigger - I just checked out my first library book on the kindle via Amazon  :)   Technology has really helped the visually impaired.

Add new comment

You may login with your assigned e-mail address.
The password field is case sensitive.

Or log in with...

Add new comment