Deep thinking about deep reading

It is not without a sense of appreciated irony that I write this post. I am using an iPad that doesn’t belong to me, but which I have borrowed (in principal for the weekend, but I forgot to take it with me this morning, hence having it tonight). It’s nice, but I’m not in love with it yet.

There are a couple of events that I attended in the past week that I want to comment on. In reverse order these are the lunchtime seminar at work today, with guest speaker Bill Thompson (@billt), and the other was the ePub user group held at the Publishers’ Association last week. I will write up today first, since the User Group was minuted and so I’ll be able to recap that more succinctly once the minutes are circulated.

I was really interested to hear Bill speak having read his BBC column for a while now. I don’t want to type up everything talked about, but the most interesting part was the discussion on the changing role of publishing. The digitization of the world is such that most of the information we consume has, in some way, been represented or manipulated digitally. The context of publishing has changed. Consumers don’t rely on a single source for their information any more, no longer do the newspapers bring us the news, instead they comment on it. And we rely on the social networks in which we are embedded to let us know what stories to read and people to listen to.

And so we come to the iPad. Bill told us what he has learned in the six weeks since getting one. The ipad reveals the failings of the Kindle and the Sony Reader: they have buttons. Unlike reading a book, you have the sensation of a machine between you and the words. On an iPad you don’t have anything in the way. The sensation of reading returns to a simple relationship between the reader and the book. This isn’t to say the device is perfect, one criticism is that tracking where you are in a file is not the same as tracking where you are in a book. The iPad can show you the former but not the latter.

We were told about three challenges to publishing – economic, technological and intellectual. Far and away, the most interesting for me is the intellectual. We have a cultural relationship with the book. Reading is not instinctual, it is a learned skill. In particular the skill of deep reading a linear text creates associated memory, and reading texts full of hyperlinks and other distractions from a young age will mean that the audience will lose that skill. Now, I do agree that the skill, and pleasure, of connecting with a book shouldn’t be lost, but having spent time in post-graduate academia I would suggest there’s room for a more disconnected form of reading too. I know that while studying for my MA I would often jump from article to article making connections.* The only problem with hyperlinks being in text is that it is the writer creating those links, rather than the reader. The reader is told what connections to make, which does hamper discovery of ideas in some way. I would suggest that much richer connections will be made if you aren’t provided with them by the author, if you have to think for yourself (probably having done some deep reading and remembering what you read) and that it’s a shame this skill could be threatened. I could have spent an hour discussing this, and would happily spend more time on the subject. Somebody remind me to get a copy of Nicholas Carr’s book.

Of course, you don’t have to allow yourself to be distracted. Useful tools such as Instapaper (which I was introduced to by @adrianhon recently) let you save things easily to read later. Adrian’s recent post about reading on the ipad, mentioning Instapaper can be found here. Of course, even as I type this post, adding in useful links where necessary, I’m adding to the distractions.

Sadly, with only an hour to cover such a rich topic, I can’t report that any conclusions were reached. However, this is definitely a topic that I will be thinking about in the future. I’m coming across different ideas for digital publication every day, with books being enriched and enhanced in a huge variety of ways, but I do think there’s an argument for keeping the plain, simple, printed page. It’s taken a few centuries to develop the skill of deep reading and it would be a shame to lose it within a few generations.

*I will say for the record that I may be old fashioned in this regard, but even for online access journals I would print out the article I wanted purely for the ability to highlight and scribble on the page. And there’s nothing quite so satisfying as that moment of inspiration when an argument forms and you know what you are going to say in your essay, after hours of reading and cross-referencing articles on a single topic.

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~ by kymethra on June 14, 2010.

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