7 Digital close reading: Humans Reading Digitally
Juan Pablo Alperin; Sophie MacKenzie; and Lakota Rich
- How reading has never been solely about words on a printed page, even before the digital age
- How are brains change as a result of the type of reading we learn and practice
- How technologies can still create new ways to read, interpret, and interact with content
- Privileging reading in print over other forms diminishes the experience of reading for others
- Our brains are learning and evolving along with advances in technology and digital reading
- The opportunity to interact with other readers as we read is something different
What is “Reading”?
This chapter is about what is sometimes referred to as close reading: “an activity that keeps you focused on and within a text—appraising individual words, shapes of thought, rhetorical devices, patterns of description and characterization, and so forth, in order to understand the text’s artistic achievement”. While we may have a sense of what reading (and close reading) is, things seem to become muddled when we consider reading digitally.
It seems that when it comes to reading on screens or listening to audiobooks, there is often debate over their legitimacy compared to printed text. However, regardless of format, be it a physical book, an audiobook, or an ebook, the meaning the texts carry remains the same—making them different paths that lead to the same end. To think that there is a hierarchy within the different forms (or claiming one is more “pure”) is to negate the historic ways people have learned information, the different ways people receive information (see the social model of disability), and the quality of the information they get through these different forms. ”
AUDIOBOOKS AS DIGITAL READING
As oral storytelling and the written word are intrinsically linked within our physical states, we should think of them as two sides of the same coin—to read is to listen. Indeed, most readers do something called ‘subvocalization’, which is the habit of ‘saying’ the words on the page in your mind as if they were an external voice. In fact, those of us who subvocalize when we read will find it incredibly difficult to even imagine any other form of reading. Writers of great historical importance in ‘western’ literature, from Homer to various contributors to the Bible over multiple centuries were never in-fact writers but oral storytellers. And in the case of the latter, literacy became a powerful tool of social control through the delegitimization of religious stories not contained in sacred texts. But does this make their work any less valuable? Any less literate? Of course not. So why would we assume that listening to audiobooks is somehow inferior to reading them?
Listening to oral stories and reading texts both disseminate the same set of ideas, feelings, and messages. The mediums may vary, but the message remains the same. Text used to be the only means of relaying information across space and time, but modern technology allows for the spoken word to be stored and shipped in the same way, and it can even be used to convey information that text is often lacking, like a specific intonation, or a musical score.
To limit the idea of reading as being something we only do with our eyes, or within the contained structure of printed books, is to fail to value to the experiences of those who exist outside our default norm. Digital formats like ebooks are essential for those with visual impairments (who can change the size of the text on an e-reader), those with dyslexia (who can apply Open Dyslexic font), those who simply aren’t able to physically turn the pages of a book, or those in remote communities who don’t have access to physical books. Audiobooks work in much the same way. Originally created as wax cylinders as part of the initiative of the American Institute for the Blind, they are now used by those with visual impairments, by children who struggle with reading, people who are non-native speakers, as well as people for whom audiobooks are simply more convenient or pleasant. These “non-traditional” ways of reading do not negate any of the information conveyed by the authors, nor make the content provided through these forms somehow less valuable, or less tangible. This all to say that, while Audiobooks are not a substitute for literacy, there is also no reason for them to be conflated with any of the stigma attached to illiteracy.
how Digital Reading changes us
None of this is to say that different technologies do not have different effects on us. It turns out that our brains have evolved alongside new technologies and ways of engaging with information as written language took over from oral traditions, and books eventually took over from tablets and scrolls. Today’s rise in digital technologies and digital reading is no different than the shifting technologies of the past. According to Maryanne Wolf, the areas of our brains that interact with written material have a high degree of plasticity and are constantly shaped by our daily reading. This constant adaptation allows us to evolve alongside new technologies. Yet, the changes come with their own challenges. For example, digital reading has taught us to skim content (in an F or Z pattern) . Wolf claims that this skimming can be problematic—and promote the loss of critical reading skills and empathy—if it is not balanced with enough in-depth reading. According to Wolf, ‘[t]his is not a simple, binary issue of print vs digital reading and technological innovation…In this hinge moment between print and digital cultures, society needs to confront what is diminishing in the expert reading circuit, what our children and older students are not developing, and what we can do about it.” Wolf goes on to state that “digital reading is showing the possibility that critical analysis, empathy and other deep reading processes could become the unintended “collateral damage” of our digital culture. It is about how we all have begun to read on any medium and how that changes not only what we read, but also the purposes for why we read.” But this isn’t to say that digital reading is problematic. Instead, it is to say we need to teach ourselves how to read better online. According to a 2014 study, children were shown to read deeply online, but they just had to be shown how. As Wolf states, “[t]he same plasticity that allows us to form a reading circuit to begin with, and short-circuit the development of deep reading if we allow it, also allows us to learn how to duplicate deep reading in a new environment”.
DIGITAL READING AND INTERACTION—ANNOTATION with HYPOTHES.IS
As the forms and formats change, and our brains change along with them, there can be developments that present a new paradigm for reading, such as social online annotations. While people have annotated the written word, creating a dialogue between themselves and the text, these comments in the margin (sometimes called marginalia) were usually written to help individuals work through their learning process and innermost thoughts—much like typical note-taking. Up until recently, these comments typically operated in a single direction. That is, comments could be left for the next reader, but there was no dialogue between author and reader, or between readers (see examples of traditional marginalia here). Nowadays, it is possible for open social annotation tools, like Hypothes.is to transform annotations from something linear to something interactive. Just as marginalia have always blurred the boundaries of where a text ends, social online annotation tools start to blur the boundaries of when a text ends. As readers leave comments and begin to interact with other readers (and potentially the authors of the text itself, as you are invited to do with the very text in this book), the experience of reading is transformed into an interactive one. The experience of reading is thus changed from a solitary one that takes place at a singular moment in time to a social one that can span an extended period, as multiple readers come back to the text again again to read how other annotators are transforming the text.
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- Hoffelder, Nate. 2017. Damn the Facts: The “Ebook Sales Are Down” Narrative Must be Maintained at All Costs. The digital reader.
- Watters, Audrey. 2017. Un-Annotated. audreywatters.com (Annotations are disabled.)
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