Hands holding an ebook reader
Reading an ebook

How people read today

With an increasing number of texts being read online or as ebooks, reading habits have changed substantially over the last three decades. As a UK survey found, today’s young people ‘are now much more likely to prefer to read on a computer screen rather than a printed book or magazine’.

Conducted by the UK’s National Literacy Trust in 2013 with almost 35,000 people between the ages of 8 and 16, the survey also found that ‘almost a third of youngsters read fiction on online devices’ (BBC, 16 May 2013). Interestingly, a more recent study by the same institution conducted in 2015 found that there are significant gender and ethnic divides between online and offline readers:

Girls have more firmly embraced digital literacy and formats such as Facebook, email and text message, while boys are more comfortable with traditional printed media such as comics, manuals and newspapers, according to a study published by the National Literacy Trust. The snapshot – based on responses from 32,000 pupils at more than 130 schools in the UK – found that girls continue to outpace boys in their enthusiasm for reading outside school at all age levels, with black girls in particular showing a prodigious appetite for literature (The Guardian, 20 May 2015).

The results of this study may well challenge ingrained beliefs about how boys and girls use media. While the idea that girls read more literature than boys will hardly come as a surprise to most readers of this article, the fact that girls are the more avid online readers and writers both affirms conventional wisdom concerning girls’ greater communicative skills and challenges another belief held by many, namely that boys are more attuned to the latest technological developments. The other major finding of the study – that black girls are the most avid readers of literature in the survey group – also deserves comment. The German literary scholar Winfried Fluck notes that a great number of fictions stage what he calls ‘struggles for recognition’ – struggles to be recognized and valued by other members of society. While the archetypal narratives of recognition are the Cinderella story (for girls) and the adventure story (for boys), these struggles are also at the heart of a great number of the most highly valued fictions. Think of Queequeg’s and Ishmael’s struggles for recognition in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick; think of Hester Prynne’s in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter; think of Elizabeth Bennet’s in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. To give two more recent examples from bestselling popular literature, consider Harry Potter’s struggles for recognition in J. K. Rowling’s series of novels and Katniss Everdeen’s in The Hunger Games trilogy.

For Fluck, who draws on the work on ‘recognition’ of political theorist Nancy Fraser and philosopher Axel Honneth, struggles for recognition are at the heart of the stories that literature tells – from the most popular to the most high-brow. With this in mind, we could at least speculate why black girls were found to be the most avid readers in the National Literacy Trust’s 2013 survey. Could it be that, in a society that is still racially and ethnically divided, the opportunity afforded by fictions to explore fictional struggles for recognition is most readily embraced by a group of readers that are more likely to be socially marginalized or disenfranchised than other groups – by a group of readers that is, in other words, involved in more existential struggles for recognition of their own? A word of caution is in order though: this is a speculative interpretation of the results of one empirical study that would need to be verified (or falsified) with further research.

As far as ebook and online reading is concerned, one of the most hotly debated questions is how these new forms of reading impact the cognitive processing of the texts we read. When we read texts online or as ebooks, do we get as deep an understanding of them and remember as much of them as we do when we read a print book?

The third, European-wide study to be mentioned here suggests that ebook reading impacts our cognitive processing negatively. It found that ‘readers using a Kindle were “significantly” worse than paperback readers at recalling when events occurred in a mystery story’. One of the lead researchers of the project, Anne Mangen of the National Center for Reading Education and Research at Norway’s Stavanger University, puts it thus:

When you read on paper you can sense with your fingers a pile of pages on the left growing, and shrinking on the right. … [The differences for Kindle readers] might have something to do with the fact that the fixity of a text on paper, and this very gradual unfolding of paper as you progress through a story, is some kind of sensory offload, supporting the visual sense of progress when you’re reading. Perhaps this somehow aids the reader, providing more fixity and solidity to the reader’s sense of unfolding and progress of the text, and hence the story (The Guardian, 19 August 2014).


Fluck, Winfried. ‘Literature, Recognition, Ethics: Struggles for Recognition and the Search for Ethical Principles.’ Literature, Ethics, Morality: American Studies Perspectives. Eds. Ridvan Askin and Philipp Schweighauser. Tübingen: Gunter Narr, 2015. 65–87.

Fraser, Nancy and Axel Honneth. Redistribution or Recognition? A Political-Philosophical Exchange. Trans. Joel Golb, James Ingram, and Christiane Wilke. London:Verso, 2003.

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This article is from the free online course:

Literature in the Digital Age: from Close Reading to Distant Reading

University of Basel