Thursday, 19 February 2015

Fragmented information

As a mother to a four-month old (and a soon to be five-year-old) I find my days fragmented by interruptions: the cursor is left blinking vacuously mid-sentence, the carelessly pushed-back chair at the table abandoned regularly, the half-read paragraph left draped in fast-evaporating thoughts that won't exist anymore when I finally get back to reading it. Things are left half-drunk, half-eaten, forgotten, abandoned, partially thought-through, quietly wilted due to lack of attention. I leave behind me a trail of uncompleted things.

It seems futile to pick up something of any substance.

Recently, I've noticed that this attitude has permeated how I read. I reach for my phone to scroll through my twitter feed instead of picking up my book. I choose short instead of long, the sound-bite instead of the whole story. Online reading is overflowing with short, easily-digestible chunks of text, where thoughts can flit from idea to idea without having to delve too deeply or permanently on anything. It's perfect for interruptions. At least then, I reason, I can actually feel like I've finished something.

Books require more commitment and are geared towards a continuous, linear thought-process. The reader must make the effort to reconstruct the writer's original thoughts, patiently follow their trail and add to them through some level of critical engagement. It's interesting to me how print and online reading use the same decoding process but result in two different types of reading and, ultimately, two different ways of thinking. Ironically, I came across an article on Why reading on a screen is bad for critical thinking on my twitter feed the other day. I skimmed it (as I do when reading on my phone between a number of unfinished tasks) and made a point of re-reading it later on my laptop.

Noami Baron writes, "The ways we use technologies lead us to develop particular habits of mind. With print, even though we might skim and scan, the default mindset is continuous reading. It's also focusing on what we're reading, even though sometimes our thoughts wander. Digital technologies engender a different set of habits and practices. Their default state is what I call reading on the prowl. Think of how much time you spend on each hit after doing a Google search. A minute? Ten seconds? And how likely are you to be multitasking while reading onscreen?"

This really resonated with me. I have to confess to becoming "a reader on the prowl". I roam aimlessly around, following links, reading a few lines here, a few lines there, reading much but absorbing little, and getting more and more overwhelmed by the infinite sources of information coming at me in little bits and pieces. The problem is, those fragments don't add up to anything meaningful. I, the reader, am left still searching for the substance of the thing that allows the writer's original idea to take form and shape and be passed on. I'm left with a sense of incompleteness.

Time, thought, concentration and effort are needed to be an engaged reader. The internet with its temptations of hyperlinks, email and endless distraction doesn't offer fertile opportunities for doing this. 

Nor does a day punctured by interruptions.

Monday, 9 February 2015

The weight of tiredness

There are those days when demands push up against a drenched-to-the-bone tiredness. Ideas, needs, wants, responsibilities, goals; they all make their mark. A notch in the bone. A weight that drops right through the body. It can sink a person.

I carry, I rock, I sing. Time blurs these into a never-ending rhythm. I fall asleep sitting, leaning against the wall, nursing her. The house, empty and silent, recedes momentarily. As if reality has taken a step back. Then I wake with a start, with a sudden rush of awareness. 

She's still nursing; her mouth moving dreamily, eyes closed with their delicate lace of lashes. Gently, I put her down on the bed, small limbs soft and droopy.

Outside, the sun continues to stream down with its heat that sticks to skin. The pool is plastic, half a meter deep and tucked away behind the washing line. I submerge myself in its ever-changing reflections of blue. I lie back and look up at the trees and see the world from the bottom up. The water, although shallow, is cool and refreshing, and somehow, magically, buoyant.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

The point of literacy is stories

What is the point of literacy if not stories? It's the key to unlocking that magical world of books. Early experiences of reading are often driven by the desire to get behind those seemingly impenetrable words to the rich stories behind them. I particularly like Francis Spufford's description in "The Child That Books Built" that describes so evocatively the experience of stepping from laboured reading to effortless fluency:
“...the writing has softened and lost the outlines of the printed alphabet and become a transparent liquid, first viscous and sluggish, like a jelly of meaning, then even thinner and more mobile, flowing faster and faster, until it reached me at the speed of thinking and I could not entirely distinguish the suggestions it was making from my own thoughts. I had undergone the acceleration into the written word that you also experience as a change in the medium. In fact, writing has ceased to be a thing – an object in the world – and become a medium, a substance you look through” (Spufford 2002:65).
The important thing is that the effort of reading must pay off, and the reward for that incredible effort is being able to gain independent entry into the wonderful world of stories. Spufford goes on to speak about reading:
“...for the words we take into ourselves help to shape us. They help form the questions we think are worth asking; they shift around the boundaries of the sayable inside us, and the related borders of what’s acceptable; their potent images, calling on more in us than the response we will ourselves to have, dart new bridges into being between our conscious and unconscious minds, between what we know we know and the knowledge we cannot examine by thinking. They build and stretch and build again the chambers of our imagination” (2002:21-22).
This type of creative immersion in the world of reading is far more than simply a mechanical process of decoding signs (the alphabet).  It is something more. Something magical. Functional reading doesn't offer the same motivation to put in the hard work it takes to learn to read, only reading for pleasure offers that. If we can't offer children the magic of stories, then what is the point of reading really?


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