Monday, 14 December 2015

The New Old Reading

Katherine Hayles has an interesting and thought-provoking article on how we read in today’s world of the ubiquitous screen.
The first point I felt worth noting was the fact the Professor Hayles published her article on her own website, but via Scribd. Depending on your device and configuration, this initially means the dreaded scroll bar within a scroll bar, which a lot of unmotivated would surf away from instantly. The presentation is also clearly print-like pages, thus suggesting that Professor Hayles prefers printed material herself.
Image of scroll bar within a scroll bar
The Dreaded Double Scroll Bar
In the debate of print versus digital, deep versus skim/scan, she openly comes down on the side of deep reading traditionally associated with print.
When I can, I print, (though an ecologist at heart), sometimes to give my eyes a screen break I will shed a few leaves of (hopefully sustainable) forest. Also, you can scribble notes, underline, or even highlight if you have the fancy pens. All of which describes the deep reading many of us have been brought up on, the loss of which many lament, and not just among academia. Parents of a certain age, frequently regret the loss of such skills among their screen-addicted teen offspring. Professor Hayles also notes how digital reading, skimming and scanning, establishes different brain pathways when compared to print and deep reading. 
The essential difference as I see it, is when we read digitally we are often in a hurry, and it is this rushing which is contrary to deep reading (sitting somewhere quiet giving a poem/slice of text your entire attention), truly attempting to connect to all the writer had in mind, plus of course the multiple layers of linguistic artistry binding those layers of meaning. Apparently, research (the results of which the professor calls into question) has been done on brain activity of various groups while reading digitally. An interesting study might be a comparison of heart rate while reading print versus digital. Studies have found that we absorb more, the more relaxed we are. If we rush when reading digitally, we are not relaxed, therefore absorbing less? Or perhaps feeling less? That is, not fully empathizing with the message or messenger?

Skapinke (2015) in a recent Financial Times article cites research by Mangen and Kuiken (2014) which compares print versus digital when reading fiction and non-fiction.
Results indicated that, independently of prior experience with reading on electronic media, readers in the iPad reported dislocation within the text and awkwardness in handling their medium. Also, iPad readers who believed they were reading non-fiction were less likely to report narrative coherence and transportation, while booklet readers who believed they were reading non-fiction were, if anything, more likely to report narrative coherence. Finally, booklet (but not iPad) readers were more likely to report a close association between transportation and empathy.
When measuring how long screen reading has been around compared to print, (the latter about 5,000 years), Skapinke describes the former as “a just-peeled-the-protective-plastic-off novelty”.
The fact is screen reading is now natural for many below a certain age, and there is no way to put that genie back in the box.

Young boy in bed reading on an electronic device
Reading is "cool" on-screen
According to the National Literacy Trust, boys think it is cool to read on-screen.
If we want younger generations to learn how to read deeply, as Professor Hayles, and many others do, then we must find ways to adapt our teaching to integrate the screen. Alan Liu in the English department at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has been teaching what he calls a Literature+ course, an example of which is rewiring Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet into “Romeo and Juliet: A Facebook Tragedy”. Thus a form which is familiar to the students is used to present the age old theme of love and tragedy in a way that contemporizes it for them, and hopefully develops their capacity as readers of text, and indeed life.


Hayles, N. (2010). "How We Read: Close, Hyper, Machine". Retrieved 10 December 2015, from

Skapinke, M. Those headed for the top add print to their digital reading. (2015). Retrieved from:

Mangen, A. & Kuiken, D. (2014). Lost in the iPad: Narrative engagement on paper and tablet. Retrieved from:,. (2015). Ebooks boost boys' reading abilities, research finds. Retrieved 10 December 2015, from,. (2015). Our research shows using ebooks increases boys’ reading progress and makes them keener, more confident readers. Retrieved 10 December 2015, from

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