Saturday, January 5, 2019

The New Reading

Real problem or crying wolf? An interesting piece on how changes in the way we read might be having much wider - mostly bad - effects. This paragraph, in particular, drew my attention:

“Multiple studies show that digital screen use may be causing a variety of troubling downstream effects on reading comprehension in older high school and college students. In Stavanger, Norway, psychologist Anne Mangen and her colleagues studied how high school students comprehend the same material in different mediums. Mangen’s group asked subjects questions about a short story whose plot had universal student appeal (a lust-filled, love story); half of the students read Jenny, Mon Amour on a Kindle, the other half in paperback. Results indicated that students who read on print were superior in their comprehension to screen-reading peers, particularly in their ability to sequence detail and reconstruct the plot in chronological order.”

Many years ago, I wrote something (can’t recall if it was shared anywhere) on the way hypertext is changing our notions of reading. For five thousand years, reading has fundamentally been a linear process, moving sequentially from one word to the next. That changed with hypertext. Reading is now a multi-dimensional experience. It is not unreasonable to think that this has made it difficult for some people to read old-fashioned linear text. We won’t really know the effects of this until we have a generation that grew up only using hypertext. We still don’t have such a generation since schools still begin by using print books, but we’re getting there. It will either supercharge our minds or destroy precious capacities developed painstakingly over millennia.

The issue this article talks about is closely related, though not the same. There is an interesting connection that I can relate to personally. I am an exceptionally slow reader, and have tried to analyze why. The conclusion I have come to is that there are two reasons. First, I do actually read every word as well as its connections within the text. This is probably a consequence of having read too much poetry very early in life. About 80% or more of my extracurricular reading until age 9 was poetry, and poetry has to be read slowly. The second reason is that, as I read, I often jump off on other tangents suggested by what I’m reading - a related idea, the history of a person mentioned in the text, or just the beauty of a particular sentence. In a sense, I read linear text like hypertext, except that the hyperlinks are in my mind, not on the page. Now, I’m sure this this is the case for all readers, but those who read fast are better able to streamline this process and probably resist the distraction of tangents. Ultimately, this comes down to a broader habit of mind. Some of us are better at concentration, others prefer ramification. This may also be related to the dichotomy between convergent and divergent thinking. Perhaps, by destabilizing the linearity of reading in young minds, we are also making them more creative.

Complexity is complicated....

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