Monday, 25 August 2014

Slowing down

It strikes me as kind of ironic that I've been writing so much about slow reading and been trying to keep up a rather frenetic pace myself. My attention flits from page to page, from task to task, from to-do list to to-do list; work, home, work, home with a frantic, repetitive rhythm like pages flipping faster and faster through a book.  When I finally stop to breathe I start to worry that this baby will be born before we can move back into our home and I get desperate to find the kid's old baby clothes that have been sealed away from the dust and mess and at least put together a pretense at being ready.

Perhaps I haven't fully registered that in just six short weeks I'll be a mother again, that I actually have to slow down, that physically I can't keep it up... not until this last week anyway, when it took a scare to remind me of this fact. So, it looks like slowing down is the path that lies ahead of me for now.

Monday, 11 August 2014

Timeless advice about reading

Seeing as I've been writing about reading recently, I have to share this timeless advice from Lewis Carroll about how to read, found via Brainpickings. It touches on a number of points I've discussed here before, namely that to truly engage with and understand more complex content, one needs to slow down and read in depth (the type of reading that is best done in print).

In this short extract from his book A Random Walk in Science, Carroll advises readers how to read critically and plunge on in spite of challenges and difficulties encountered in the text. It insightfully and charmingly shows how reading has to adapt to purpose (for example we read texts for work or study differently from how we go about reading a novel). While this book was published in 1973 (in that case well before the flood of online text and social media distractions) the advice he gives under "How to learn" still holds true for today.

"The Learner, who wishes to try the question fairly, whether this little book does, or does not, supply the materials for a most interesting mental recreation, is earnestly advised to adopt the following Rules:
  1. Begin at the beginning, and do not allow yourself to gratify a mere idle curiosity by dipping into the book, here and there. This would very likely lead to your throwing it aside, with the remark “This is much too hard for me!", and thus losing the chance of adding a very large item to your stock of mental delights. This Rule (of not dipping) is very desirable with other kinds of books—-such as novels, for instance, where you may easily spoil much of the enjoyment you would otherwise get from the story, by dipping into it further on, so that what the author meant to be a pleasant surprise comes to you as a matter of course. Some people, I know, make a practice of looking into Vol. III first, just to see how the story ends: and perhaps it is as well just to know that all ends happily—that the much-persecuted lovers do marry after all, that he is proved to be quite innocent of the murder, that the wicked cousin is completely foiled in his plot and gets the punishment he deserves, and that the rich uncle in India (Qu. Why in India? Ans. Because, somehow, uncles never can get rich anywhere else) dies at exactly the right moment—-before taking the trouble to read Vol. I.
    This, I say, is just permissible with a novel, where Vol. III has a meaning, even for those who have not read the earlier part of the story; but, with a scientific book, it is sheer insanity: you will find the latter part hopelessly unintelligible, if you read it before reaching it in regular course.
  2. Don’t begin any fresh Chapter, or Section, until you are certain that you thoroughly understand the whole book up to that point, and that you have worked, correctly, most if not all of the examples which have been set. So long as you are conscious that all the land you have passed through is absolutely conquered, and that you are leaving no unsolved difficulties behind you, which will be sure to turn up again later on, your triumphal progress will be easy and delightful. Otherwise, you will find your state of puzzlement get worse and worse as you proceed, till you give up the whole thing in utter disgust.
  3. When you come to any passage you don’t understand, read it again: if you still don’t understand it, read it again: if you fail, even after three readings, very likely your brain is getting a little tired. In that case, put the book away, and take to other occupations, and next day, when you come to it fresh, you will very likely find that it is quite easy.
  4. If possible, find some genial friend, who will read the book along with you, and will talk over the difficulties with you. Talking is a wonderful smoother-over of difficulties. When I come upon anything—in Logic or in any other hard subject—that entirely puzzles me, I find it a capital plan to talk it over, aloud, even when I am all alone. One can explain things so clearly to one’s self! And then, you know, one is so patient with one’s self: one never gets irritated at one’s own stupidity!
If, dear Reader, you will faithfully observe these Rules, and so give my little book a really fair trail, I promise you, most confidently, that you will find Symbolic Logic to be one of the most, if not the most, fascinating of mental recreations!"

I love the way these four rules, in a way that is slow and deliberate without becoming pedantic, point out a pathway to understanding that is linear, measured and ultimately honest, in that it doesn't offer a shortcut or quick solution to a task, that by its nature, just takes time.

Friday, 1 August 2014

Slow reading in an information ecology

My interest in how our reading habits are influenced and changed by the digital age lead me to John Miedema’s book Slow Reading. It’s about how we as readers make choices about how much attention we give a text, from skimming and scanning online articles or headlines to deep reading a novel for example. The point being that whatever tool we use to read does, on some level, influence how we read and think. What I like about his book is that it looks at digital and print reading as two complementary and necessary parts, that it sees a symbiotic relationship between the two and rather than the one spelling doom for the other.

In his chapter, Slow Reading in an Information Ecology, Miedema states:
“Digital technology is often preferable for searching and scanning short snippets. However, print has endured because it is still the superior technology for reading anything of length, quality or substance. While digital technology lends itself to discovering and remixing ideas in novel ways, slow reading of books is still essential for nurturing literacy and the capacity for extended linear thought.”
I couldn’t agree more. The two media have different functions and we begin to run into problems if this is not recognised and if they are seen as completely interchangeable. Engaging with an extended text in detail is something I always want to do in print, but I realise that for others this might not be the same. My concern, however, is particularly within education, where the drive towards embracing all things digital can happen at the expense of more fundamental literacy skills. Children need the skills both of quick scanning in order to manage the volumes of information available online and the ability to slow down and read in depth. Miedema says of print’s enduring prominence in a digital age: 
“Our casual information needs are served very well by the web, but our reading requirements run deeper than that. Sometimes we must slow down and read at a reflective pace and print facilitates that. Print and slowness have a close relationship. Print is fixed; the ideas will not change during a reading. A book is linear and long, encouraging the reader to recreate the author’s original sequence of thought. Print persists because it is a superior technology for integrating information of any length, complexity or richness; it is better suited to slow reading.”
I often find that this understanding of the different purposes of reading is what separates a successful student from an unsuccessful one; the casual skills used during skimming of information on the internet are not sufficient for academic success. It is for this reason I strongly believe that print and digital reading need to go hand-in-hand in order to teach these different reading skills. Digital and print reading need to be seen, not as mutually interchangeable, but as necessary, complementary elements of our thinking process.

So far I've enjoyed dipping into this little book for valuable insights about a subject I'm very interested in, so I'm hoping to have a bit more time to explore some of these ideas here. A friend of mine recently also pointed me in the direction of Maria Konnikova's New Yorker article Being a better online reader which underlines many of Miedema's points that I've discussed here. So to end off, I'd like to leave you with the following thoughts from the article:

"The shift from print to digital reading may lead to more than changes in speed and physical processing. It may come at a cost to understanding, analysing, and evaluating a text. Much of Mangen's (a professor at the National Centre for Reading Education and Research at the University of Stavanger, Norway) research focuses on how the format of reading material may affect not just eye movement or reading strategy by broader processing abilities. One of her main hypotheses is that the physical presence of a book - its heft, its feel, the weight and order of its pages - may have more than a purely emotional or nostalgic significance. People prefer physical books, not out of old-fashioned attachment but because the nature of the object iself has deeper repercussions for reading and comprehension. 'Anecdotally, I've heard some say it's like they haven't read anything properly if they've read it on a Kindle. The reading has left more of an ephemeral experience,' she told me. Her hunch is that the physicality of a printed page may matter for those reading experiences when you need a firmer grounding in the material. The text you read on a Kindle or computer simply doesn't have the same tangibility."

Read the full article here.


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