I don’t know about you, but I love reading books. I love having my eyes opened to new ideas by non-fiction or being transported to strange worlds with compelling characters in a novel, but I’m awful at it. Well, I’m not awful at reading, I’m awful at making the time to read. Though, truth be told, I’m a slow, word-by-word reader.
Lately, I’ve even been finding it difficult to focus, even when I do sit down to read. I’ll find myself on a quiet Sunday afternoon with a book in one hand and a giant cup of tea in the other searching for any reason to put the book down after a page or two.
Panic set in as I started to wonder, “Am I losing my ability to read? Or am I just really bad at picking interesting books?”
I’ve spent the last few hours perusing the internet in search of help, and what I can definitively tell you is the answer to both those questions is no. Kind of.
A few years ago Maryanne Wolf published Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain in which she takes a look at how we read and what technology has done our ability to read. She starts by informing us that the human brain was never meant to read, it’s a skill we developed and perfected since the time of Egyptian hieroglyphs, which gave way to the alphabet we know today. We learned to follow written text in long form, tracking through sentences and paragraphs with some ease.
Today, however, the prominence of the internet and digital media has us reading in a very different way. Information is presented in shorter stanzas, broken down into scannable pages, with little block text. Everything has been made to accommodate quick searching and absorption. Most digital media is also more exhausting. We are bombarded with information and have to be able to determine very quickly what hyperlink to click on and what pop up ad to ignore.
It is expected that we won’t read each section thoroughly, but instead allow our eyes to jump across the page to find the content we need without engaging in each section. According to Wolf this might be changing how our brain understands literature, rerouting neural pathways, and actually making it more difficult to do what she calls ‘slow reading’.
There is also evidence that we don’t comprehend information as thoroughly online as we do if it’s in print. We have been trained to read long form and absorb, but we’ve never been taught how to delve into online content the same way. It’s been taken for granted that the two mediums would not affect comprehension, but research is starting to emerge showing that it does. Our brains will constantly adapt, so there is some concern we might lose our ability to read longer, more complex articles and books as we constantly strive to read faster and shorter pieces.
Now, I don’t want you to think this is a condemnation of short, concise digital content. We live in a fast paced world and are inundated with more information than we know what to do with so we need to be able to quickly find what we’re looking for. Besides, it is literally in my job description to create concise content for clients and this shift isn’t going to change. So instead of fretting about it or fighting it, we need to learn how to adapt to the different mediums.
Wolf believes that with practice we can train our brains to be bi-literate and learn how to deeply understand digital content just as well as we do print. She asserts that with the necessary thoughtfulness we can improve comprehension.
For me this is reassuring. It reminds me of the extent to which the outside world affects my brain and my ability to focus. We’re so accustomed to the fast paced, distraction riddled world of the internet where things are always changing. There’s an easy satisfaction derived from checking what new content is available and what people are saying about it. It keeps me seeking the latest, greatest, and quickest things out there, and, unfortunately, it makes it difficult for me to focus on in-depth, slow-reading. But, according to Wolf, with a little practice I will be able to appreciate both mediums comprehensively.
So, let’s stop worrying about which one is better or worse and agree that both long form print and short form digital have their place in this world, we just need to figure out how to embrace each of their strengths.
Things I read to write this blog: