23 Jun

On Reading

Yesterday, I heard a brief segment of the NPR program “On the Media,” which included an interview with Ann Kirschner, a woman who set out to read Little Dorrit in four different formats: paperback book, audio book, Kindle, and iPhone.

Now, just to clarify: she didn’t read the entire book four times, which is initially how I was envisioning this crazy project. No. Instead, she would start in her house with the paperback version, and then she’d pick up at that point with the audio book while traveling to work on the subway.

“I didn’t set out to be scientific, I set out to be practical,” she explained. Which is to say that it wasn’t so much an experiment as it was a method of fitting in 1000 pages of reading with an otherwise busy life.

But the experience still provoked questions about various methods of reading (and whether they all can be called reading). I don’t think there was a clear winner in her estimation, but the Kindle seemed to be the clear loser. She didn’t like “having to make a conscious decision to take it with her.” And she also cited the annoying black screen transition that animates every page turn.

I’ve seen this annoying black screen myself. Last week, one of the members of my writing class brought a Kindle to lunch and passed it around. When you “turn” a page, the writing turns white, and the screen turns black just for a split second. It’s jarring.

Ms. Kirschner said she spent the most time listening to the audio book version, and she disagrees with those who say listening isn’t reading. She admits that with an audio book, you’re at the mercy of the narrator; you can’t go backward or forward; you can’t dog-ear pages or underline or write in the margins. So it’s a relatively “passive” experience, she concedes. But is it still reading?
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02 Mar

Is Paper Dead?

More expert analysis coming your way. This time, I tackle the death of the novel and new media fiction.

I’ve been flirting with interactive stories for the past year or so. And my goal in doing so was pretty simple: I just wanted to make the process of reading a little more fun. People don’t read a lot of fiction on the web. And I have some theories on why that is.

It’s tempting to say that the computer screen is just too tough on the eyes and to blame the current technology for scaring off potential readers. Certainly, the Kindle has used such logic in making their product as printed-page-like as possible. But I have spent multiple hours reading text on the computer screen, and I know that most of my students have also done so.

It seems, then, that the real problem is not the amount of time spent reading a computer screen. The problem is rather the type of reading done.

Web reading is not static. It involves a lot of navigation, a mixture of image and text, and interactivity. Such reading is easier on the eyes than the long-session strain of novel-reading. And it’s also a fundamentally different type of brain engagement.

To begin with, we approach the web with the understanding that we’ll be looking at chunks of meaning. A classic example is the experience that most people have had of getting lost in wikipedia linking. You look up one topic, like, say, “pawn,” which you’ve been hearing the kids say, and the next thing you know, you’re reading about leetspeak and hacking and lolcats and memes and viral propagation. We can end up reading several chapters’ worth of information, but we get tricked into doing so because we have calibrated our brains for small units of meaning. High school students can spend hours on Facebook, but they’re examining chunks of information — status reports, pictures, videos.

A related issue is limited attention: we usually approach internet content as a temporary thing. Seldom do I ever sit down at the computer thinking that I’ll read for the next hour. It’s usually more a matter of checking in, skimming headlines, reading blurbs, etc. Sometimes, I’ll discover an interesting video online, but if it’s over 10 minutes long, I’m hesitant to start watching. Essentially, the internet reader’s mindset is in ADD mode.

Is the web making us ADD? Or does it just cater to that ADD part of us that already exists? I’m not sure, but it’s certainly a venue conducive to mixed media. Web reading is usually accompanied by images and increasingly offers video links. Many wikipedia pages (and I keep using wikipedia as an example because it’s one of the most-read site on the web) have charts, bullet point lists, and images in their margins.

All in all, web content resembles magazine or newspaper reading more than it does novel-reading. The reason the internet is killing print media like newspapers is that the web reads exactly like a newspaper. It does absolutely everything a newspaper can do, but it also allows greater ease of navigation.

I would guess that the web will not kill novels; it simply can’t replace the novel. The Kindle, and products like it, may indeed end up killing paper novels — though I don’t really see that happening soon. But at this point in our history, we simply don’t read internet content like we read novels.

Another way of saying the same thing is to say that novels won’t survive on the internet. Sure, they’ll be available online, but unless our interface with the web changes drastically (and it may do so some time within the next decade or two), they won’t be nearly as popular as other types of reading.

So the question becomes, what type of fiction will thrive in the new media environments currently facing our technologically advanced societies? That’s the issue I’ll explore next time.