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.


  1. Interesting topic. I definitely read articles, blogs, recipes, and other miscellaneous items digitally, but at present my books are all read printed page by printed page.

  2. Thanks for reading! I think the reality is that both media serve different functions for us. I definitely do the whole casual browse around the internet and then view print reading as a bit more "serious".



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