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Thursday, May 8, 2014

On Reading part 1: Reading & Technology: What does the future hold for the novel? How is technology impacting understanding?

Will Self:  "The novel is dead (this time it's for real) 
"Literary fiction used to be central to the culture. No more: in the digital age, not only is the physical book in decline, but the very idea of 'difficult' reading is being challenged. The future of the serious novel, argues Will Self, is as a specialised interest."
Chuck Windig: "[W]hat Will Self is really saying, literally and literarily, is that the literary novel, 
"the SERIOUS NOVEL WRITTEN WITH GRAVE SERIOUSNESS THAT MAKES US ALL SERIOUS IN OUR SERIOUS CONTEMPLATION OF ITS SERIOUS BUSINESS is dead, and even that remains a dubious assertion, but just the same, all that means is a particular style of novel isn’t selling as well as you’d like. Just because someone will not publish or buy a half-ass literary novel does not mean that the entire novel form has eaten the twin barrels of an uncultured shotgun."
 That's a good partial summary.  And Windig doesn't care if this art form dies.  The novel changes.

But Self has more to say.  Technology is killing thought.  A lot of recent research backs this up:
"Students retain information better with pens than laptops: Writing notes by hand may lead to deeper understanding of lecture material, study suggests."
To this I wonder if the problem is knowing how to take notes before you write on laptops, but I recall other research that suggested writing by hand being superior.
"Confronting the Myth of the 'Digital Native': '[S]ome, mostly privileged, young people use their skills constructively, while others lack even basic Internet knowledge.' "

The above is a critical article, especially in education where we're told to assume that the latest generation is a lot more tech savvy than they may be.
"Reading Books Is Fundamental:  James Baldwin... put it this way: 'You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read....'  That is the inimitable power of literature, to give context and meaning to the trials and triumphs of living. That is why it was particularly distressing that The Atlantic’s Jordan Weissmann pointed out Tuesday that: 'The Pew Research Center reported last week that nearly a quarter of American adults had not read a single book in the past year. As in, they hadn’t cracked a paperback, fired up a Kindle, or even hit play on an audiobook while in the car. The number of non-book-readers has nearly tripled since 1978.' "
We're reading less--at least fewer books.  Possibly pecking up more words piecemeal on the internet.

The reading technology news is not all bad:
Mobile technology can advance literacy and learning in underserved communities around the world.
But technology may hurt as well as help:
"Serious reading takes a hit from online scanning and skimming, researchers say.  Humans... seem to be developing digital brains with new circuits for skimming through the torrent of information online.... 
"Kurup, 47, discovered that he was having trouble reading long sentences with multiple, winding clauses full of background information. Online sentences tend to be shorter, and the ones containing complicated information tend to link to helpful background material.  When the club met, he realized he had missed a number of the book’s key plot points. It hit him that he had been scanning for information.... 
"[Another reader said,] 'I couldn’t force myself to slow down so that I wasn’t skimming, picking out key words, organizing my eye movements to generate the most information at the highest speed....'   
"A 2012 Israeli study of engineering students — who grew up in the world of screens — looked at their comprehension while reading the same text on screen and in print when under time pressure to complete the task.... The students believed they did better on screen. They were wrong. Their comprehension and learning was better on paper."
Caution:  Except for the last bit of information, the above article contains mostly anecdotal data.  However, their experience mirrors mine.  I have to reread more than I used to (I suspect I spend the same amount of time reading as I would otherwise).  I know how I'm supposed to read, so I go back and do it again.  Does the upcoming generation?

This may explain part of the problem:
"Word-streaming tech may spell trouble for readers: Reading comprehension suffers when words can’t be revisited. Rereading words salvages understanding of initially confusing passages.... Software that presents words one at a time makes it impossible to scan previously read words and phrases, undermining text comprehension."
I'm a little more dubious of the next article as it does not closely map to my experience:
"The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens E-readers and tablets are becoming more popular as such technologies improve, but research suggests that reading on paper still boasts unique advantages.... 
"[N]avigational difficulties may subtly inhibit reading comprehension. Compared with paper, screens may also drain more of our mental resources while we are reading and make it a little harder to remember what we read when we are done. A parallel line of research focuses on people's attitudes toward different kinds of media. Whether they realize it or not, many people approach computers and tablets with a state of mind less conducive to learning than the one they bring to paper."
I find myself multi-tasking when I ought not to.  That's the problem I see, which will require a study, of course.  A lot of the comments here seem too anecdotal.  Unmentioned are the advantages of electronic reading, such as speed--which only works if the reading is easy (i.e. bye-bye, poetry and difficult novels--hello, Will Self) and fast research/look-up of unknown items.  We're better informed and connected as we consume more information.  But how deep is our understanding?  What should be done to ensure the next generation of readers can read deeply?

To where will reading go in the future?  Should we worry for the next generation's ability to read more deeply?  Teachers should be able to teach that; however, it requires that parents first give a solid foundation and desire to read.  What that means is that some parents will and some won't, which will increase the intelligence divide between students.  If too few parents encourage reading, the teachers will focus on remedial reading strategies and upper level readers will suffer.

[At noon PST will appear On Reading part 2:  Reading Protocols, or I can't believe you don't read / think / see the world like I do.]

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