Thoughts About Reading (and Writing)

Today I read a very interesting article in the Sacramento Bee about the fear among experts that people are losing the ability for in-depth reading.  This is due to the rise of digital media, which people process differently than traditional print media.  One of my favorite quotes in this article is from Canadian author John Miedema, who says that “the Web is essentially a distraction machine.”  Each page of the Internet is filled with clickable links, all vying for the user’s attention.  In a sense, each hyperlink is a kind of flashing sign, saying “pick me, pick me!”  Nicholas Carr makes the point that each link causes our brain to stop and decide whether or not to click on the link.  Since our brain is forced to engage in the decision-making process, it can’t focus on the written material at hand.  The brain is multitasking and is not able to absorb the information that it ostensibly went to a web-page to find.

How many links can you find in the front page of the New York Times?

So, how does this affect me personally?  As I write this, I’m aware of everything that is vying for my attention on the screen.  It is a far cry from writing by hand on paper, or even on a typewriter, neither of which have hyperlinks. With a typewriter or pen, I don’t have any distractions, as neither of these is capable of multitasking.  With these instruments I am capable of concentrating on what I am writing, without thinking about checking my email, or being distracted by the constantly updating Twitter feed in one of the many tabs I have open on my browser.  In fact, there are so many distractions, that I find the best way to write this post is to do so in full-screen mode, which shuts out all the other options for editing this post and the rest of my blog.

Reading is the same way.  I’ve downloaded the Kindle app to my phone and my computer, but I find that I have trouble concentrating on such a tiny screen.  Also, there so many things I can do with my phone (such as play games, check email, send text messages, browse web sites and even make the occasional phone call) that I often decide that I would rather do one of those things (especially play endless games of solitaire), than read a “book” via Kindle.  With the Internet and electronic devices, it feels like there is always something more exciting around the bend.  Why read a book when I can play solitaire?  Why play solitaire when I can read the news?  Having a handheld device that can do a zillion things turns the blinking lights of hyperlinks and choices into a virtual Times Square.  Having a zillion choices all in the palm of my hand triggers my anxiety button: if I do one thing, will I miss out on something more exciting, and possibly fulfilling?  The Internet and its attendant portals becomes an overstimulation machine.

As I get caught up in the excitement of being able to do anything from anywhere (and yes, it is exciting), I have to make a conscious decision to take a step back every now and then.  Reading a book is a good way of doing this.  I love books, and buy more than I can afford, have room for in my apartment or have time to read.  I love the feel and smell of the paper, and the fact that I can get lost in a story.  It is also relaxing, precisely due to the fact that a book is what it is. The only thing a book demands of me is my time and attention. It is not flashing ads at me from the margins.  The only thing on the page is the content.  Each page of a novel only contains the story, and doesn’t try to get you to navigate away from the story.  I find it ironic that the purpose of web sites is to provide content, but that each particular piece of content is trying to lure you away from every other piece.  Are web pages therefore at war with themselves?

Deep reading, as described in the Sacramento Bee article, is a process in which the reader engages with the text, taking time to understand it and glean its meaning, even if that requires re-reading a paragraph, or even skipping back a page or two to double-check on something that he or she is not sure about.  I find it easier to do this with a book than with web pages, as bookmarking is far simpler – no browser is required, only a piece of paper, or even a finger placed between the pages.  The reader can browse backward and forward in a book, to previous content, metadata such as publishing information, or forward to the index to find further content.  A book is self-contained hypertext, in that the reader can get from any point to any other with ease.

As I mentioned above, the only thing a book demands is the reader’s attention. Deep reading also requires the user to be able to concentrate in order to be able to pay attention.  I sometimes find it difficult to do so in noisy environments.  Today I went to a restaurant for lunch, which happened to be very loud.  I had brought my book with me in the hope that I would be able to read.  However, it was so noisy that I didn’t even bother.  What did I do instead?  Did I just concentrate on enjoying my meal? No, I looked at my phone. I admit that my mind is one that abhors boredom, and often longs to be distracted from whatever is going on around me, without having to pay too much attention to anything in particular.  This is where the phone as distraction device comes in handy.  Maybe phones, laptops and iPads are perfect for these situations in which one wants to – or needs to – engage with some sort of information, without having to focus too much.

I could go on, but this is as good as place as any to stop.  Part of the reason I wrote this is to clarify my thoughts to myself, as well as to share my thoughts with others who may be interested. My thoughts on information and my – and other people’s – relationship with it is always changing and developing.  This is just what I happen to be thinking at this moment in time. I hope you like what you read, and all and any comments are welcome.

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