Reading and Innovation in a Digital World

The act of reading has been evolving for decades, as have the publishing companies who edit, publish, and market books. From dictation, to pen and paper, to a typewriter, to a computer, to an iPad: the way that we communicate language has undergone a constant stream of change. It is also true that forms of the past have resurfaced in the age of digital literature. While the Dickensian novel may seem daunting to the modern reader with a short attention span, some of Dickens’ works were originally serialized in short installments. So while the digital world is causing publishers and writers to alter the way they distribute written material, some of these changes aren’t all together new. All of this is to say that the way people gather knowledge and read books has undergone constant change throughout history, and will continue to do so as technology, and inevitably, our brains, evolve; “Just as it seemed weird five centuries ago to see someone read silently, in the future it will seem weird to read without moving your body” (Kelly, 2010).

This paper will explore how online environments are altering the way we read and how we comprehend material. As reading habits change due to digital distraction and the dynamic nature of the web, our interest in pondering over long pieces of text and our capacity to focus are declining. Thus, not only are our desires changing, our brains are being exercised in a new way that is causing a shift in our cognitive processes. This transformation in the act of reading is affecting how writers and innovators are approaching literature. They are spearheading inventive reading-related ideas and technologies to cater to a new reader. In effect, I will argue that we should adjust our approach to reading; that we should focus on learning new skills to help us maintain the critical ability to read deeply.

In the digital age, people are constantly consumed with interactive online activities. In fact, according to CBC, Canadians visit an average of 80 sites and spend an average of 36.3 hours online on their desktop computers every month. This inspires the following questions: are people becoming skim readers who view the content of a book the same way they would the content of an app or twitter feed? Have our online scrolling and browsing habits affected our ability and desire to read real works of literature? There is anecdotal and scientific evidence to suggest that online reading and digital consumption are changing the way people read in a number of ways.

Today’s readers are increasingly interested in reading shorter digital content. We are reading eBooks on e-reading devices and mobile phones, which often cause interruptions as we engage in an array of online activities. We have become distracted readers, moving from online article to social media site, to email. An article by Maria Konnikova in the New Yorker, discusses how digital reading is encouraging skimming behavior; it is causing us “to browse and scan, to look for keywords, and to read in a less linear, more selective fashion.” Websites are set up to encourage this skim reading. They are often designed with bold headings and sub-headings, lists, and an emphasis on an F-shaped pattern. Reading online is affecting how quickly we read and how we process information; the online world fatigues us, as we filter out hyperlinks and adjust our eyes to “shifting screens, layouts, colors, and contrasts” (Konnikova, 2014). The more time we spend online, the more our brains adjust to this new way of reading: “what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles” (Carr, 2008).

Maryanne Wolf’s research on deep reading has been referenced extensively in articles discussing the effects of online reading. According to Wolf, reading is learned and the media we use to do this learning plays an important role in shaping the neural circuits inside our brains (Carr, 2008). Wolf references the reading of ideograms vs. an alphabet and how readers of each develop a mental circuitry that varies: “the variations extend across many regions of the brain, including those that govern such essential cognitive functions as memory and the interpretation of visual and auditory stimuli. We can expect as well that the circuits woven by our use of the Net will be different from those woven by our reading of books and other printed works” (Carr, 2008). Similar to readers of different languages, we use different parts of our brain depending on whether we’re reading online or from a piece of paper. It is possible that the ever increasing, non-linear reading that we do online will affect our cognitive processes and therefore, how we process information.

Just as changing reading patterns have altered our mental habits, it is possible that they will also affect our deep reading abilities. Nicholas Carr writes:

“Wolf worries that the style of reading promoted by the Net, a style that puts “efficiency” and “immediacy” above all else, may be weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier technology, the printing press, made long and complex works of prose commonplace. When we read online, she says, we tend to become ‘mere decoders of information.’ Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged.”

Linear, traditional reading is slowly disappearing, and as we disengage from reading long-form content that forces us to think critically and analytically, we are no longer exercising our minds to think in this way.

On the other hand, online reading requires the ability to multi-task, prioritize, and focus. It invites us to hone new skills and change the way we absorb information: “Books were good at developing a contemplative mind. Screens encourage more utilitarian thinking. A new idea or unfamiliar fact will provoke a reflex to do something: to research the term, to query your screen “friends” for their opinions, to find alternative views, to create a bookmark, to interact with or tweet the thing rather than simply contemplate it” (Kelly, 2010). While there may be a decline in deep reading, we are gaining other valuable reading skills online: “Screen reading encourages rapid pattern-making, associating this idea with another, equipping us to deal with the thousands of new thoughts expressed every day. The screen rewards, and nurtures, thinking in real time” (Kelly, 2010). Reading online is a different type of reading, and it may take some time to adjust to this type of reading (just as it did when books were first introduced), and develop new, important skills for absorbing and interpreting information.

Evidently, there are advantages to both digital reading, and reading on paper. The significance of this is that while we replace one form of reading with another, and as our brains develop new functions to process these actions, it will affect our competence and capabilities as readers and thinkers. It is difficult to ascertain whether the affects of this are good or bad, and whether one way of reading is more effective than the other. As Wolf brilliantly notes: “We’re in a place of apprehension rather than comprehension.” So, perhaps, just as individuals excel in different learning environments based on their strengths and learning styles, we may excel individually in varying reading environments. And, perhaps we are only just developing the skills required to effectively deep read in a digital environment. Wolf presents the idea that deep reading can happen online, if we are taught how. Wolf understands that we can “use the digital world to teach the sorts of skills we tend to associate with quiet contemplation and physical volumes” (Konnikova, 2014). She asserts that we can duplicate deep reading in a new environment, and that it will be necessary as we immerse ourselves in digital media. It is important to be aware that our repetitive actions do have an effect on how we interpret and process information, and ultimately, the level at which we engage in deep thinking. Thus, finding a balance between reading on paper and reading online will allow us to enhance both our deep reading skills and our ability to focus our attention.

If scrolling, skimming, and scanning are the way of the future, what can publishers do to keep people—with so many distractions and a shorter attention span—interested in reading their books? How can publishing companies bring together traditional books and technology to keep “real” reading happening? These are certainly questions that are beginning to gain a lot more time and attention from many parties, including academics, publishing industry leaders, and authors. In order to address these questions, I will explore how writers are adjusting their content, style, and format to cater to the changing reader. In addition, I will explore new technologies that are blending traditional forms of reading with digital elements.

Authors are exploring new ways to immerse ever-distracted, constantly connected readers by adjusting their writing styles. Paul Mason of The Guardian writes: “In the 20th century, we came to value this quality of immersion as literary and to see clear narratives, with characters observed only through their actions, as sub-literary. But a novel such as Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer-winning The Goldfinch, subtly derided by the literary world for its readability, is not the product of the Kindle – but of a new relationship between writer and reader.” More than ever before, readers are responding to plot-driven literature, and authors have adapted their writing in order to connect with their audience. James Wood, a book critic at The New Yorker writes of The Goldfinch: “‘Its tone, language, and story belong in children’s literature.” He notes: “I think that the rapture with which this novel has been received is further proof of the infantilization of our literary culture: a world in which adults go around reading Harry Potter.” (Peretz, 2014). This Pulitzer Prize win is evidence that, as people’s reading habits change, so does the nature of literature.

The digital reader values simplicity and a rapidly moving plot. In response to this, there is a “literary backlash – not just against the eBook, and the short attention span, but against writing styles that authors have evolved in the post-Kindle world. The American novelist Joanna Scott last month bemoaned the tendency, even in award-winning serious fiction, to produce a “good read” with a gripping plot and unfussy writing, ‘instead of a work of art’” (Mason, 2015). Just as reading styles have changed over many years, the form of literature has been in flux. As writers adapt their voices and literary techniques to appease a shifting audience and speed up the process of reading, the classic form of literature is transformed.

The author James Patterson is changing his approach to writing, in order to engage “people who have abandoned reading for television, video games, movies and social media” (Alter, 2016). Patterson has created a new line of short and propulsive novels, called Bookshots, that cost less than $5 and can be read in a single sitting. His hope is that Bookshots will appeal to readers who do not want to invest their time in a 300-page novel, and that Bookshots will provide an alternative way to read. It seems that Patterson is reviving the “dime novels and pulp fiction magazines that were popular in the late 19th and early 20th century” (Alter, 2016) in an effort to satisfy readers’ tastes for shorter works. Patterson’s plan is to make the books shorter, cheaper, more plot-driven and more widely available to appeal to the digital reader of the modern age, who prefers bite-size, action driven content. The benefit of Bookshots is that it will appeal to readers who might not normally read at all, and to readers who are interested in immersing themselves in a literary world, if only for a short time.

Thus far, I have discussed the ways that author’s writing styles have been influenced by readers’ preferences in the evolving digital world. There are additional ways that creators are responding to changing reading habits. Since we cannot counter the growth of the digital in our lives, we must embrace it and find new ways of incorporating it into traditional manners of reading. Researchers at MIT’s media lab have done just this. They’ve created a wearable book that “adjusts lighting, vibrations, and even airbags around your body to feed you the characters’ emotions as you read.”As Meghan Neal notes: “All a fiction writer that’s trying to pull on your heartstrings has to work with are the 26 letters in the alphabet, a healthy imagination, and basic human empathy.” In the digital age, this simply isn’t enough to engage most readers for a full 300-pages. While this ‘wearable book’ doesn’t solve the problem of length, it does provide a sensory aspect, in which lights, and vibrations add an electronic element to the experience of reading. Is this what the future of books will look like? Perhaps this type of engagement can combine the physical act of reading a book with a readers desire to engage with digital material. Perhaps a book like this can allow a reader to immerse so fully that they don’t want to put the book down to check their Instagram feed or pick up their phone to send a text.

A startup called Spritz is pushing the boundaries of reading even further. Spritz has developed “a speed reading text-box that shows no more than 13 characters at a time… [flashing] words at you in quick succession so you don’t have to move your eyes around a page” (Lefferts, 2014). With Spritz’s digital reading app you can read classics in under 4 hours. For example, you can finish Herman Melville’s Moby Dick in just 3.5 hours, or Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park in 2.7 hours. According to Spritz, “you spend as little as 20 percent of your reading time actually taking in the words you’re looking at, and as much as 80 percent physically moving your eyes around to find the right spot to read each word from” (Blain, 2014). As people continue to become more engaged online, they have less time for reading, and are looking to do their reading where they spend the most time: online, or on their mobile phone. Spritz combines a digital element with classic reading in a very effective way, satisfying many of the desires of the digital reader; the words are few and the reading happens quickly. Of course, reading via the Spritz app means that you cannot linger over your favourite passages, or slowly take in a work of poetry, but for the reader who has been conditioned to skim, this is an excellent middle ground to be able to take in some real works of literature.

While there are many reasons why we are reading fewer works of literature, Mason points out one very important reason. He notes that in the digital age, “people have multiple selves, and so what they are doing with an immersive story is more provisional and temporary” (Mason, 2015). Readers are losing their drive to plunge into the richness of a literary world and get lost in the lives of a set of characters. Before access to the internet, people had a single “self,” which they could immerse completely into the worlds of the literature they enjoyed. Mason reminisces on reading “novels because the life within them was more exciting, the characters more attractive, the freedom more exhilarating than anything in the reality around me, which seemed stultifying, parochial and enclosed.” Today, readers are immersing themselves online, and when they do, they have access to the lives of other people through social media, and the freedom to discover any information they seek. Traditional books are no longer the way that readers escape into another reality, as “life itself has become more immersive” (Mason, 2015). This means that writers must build a new relationship with their readers and find different ways of engaging them.

This paper has explored interesting and creative ways that writers and creators are adjusting their content to cater to a new way of reading. These are just a few of the ways that print books are becoming enhanced with technology, and old media is adjusting its content and design to give readers quicker, more efficient access to the content they want to read. The blending of digital technology with traditional books and the transformation of reading patterns will certainly have implications for readers of the future. Self-awareness as to the complexities of digital comprehension may be the first step to adjusting how we read online. In order to encourage deep reading we’ll have to adjust the way we think and develop new methods of self-control. It will be important to train our minds to read deeply online, and develop tools to manage the multi-faceted nature of the online world.

The act of reading is changing, just as it has done over many years, and it is difficult to discern whether these changes are good or bad. Just as the first screens—televisions—reduced time spent reading and writing, the second wave of screens—computers, smart phones and tablets—have put in motion a new wave of reading and writing. Literature, and the way it’s consumed, has been shifting for thousands of years, and with every new innovation our lives change a little bit, as do our desires, habits, motives, and ultimately, the way our brains function. This is the nature of evolution and is something that will always be. This means that as we continue to grow and change, we must embrace new ways of doing things, without forgetting about the old: “Education offers the potential for independence and empowerment, so let’s not replace difficult novels with easy ones, or pretend that the two are the same. Let’s not give up on the intricacies of ambitious fiction. Let’s not stop reading the kind of books that keep teaching us to read” (Scott, 2015).

Works Cited

Alter, Alexandra. “James Patterson has a Big Plan for Small Books.” The New York Times. 21 March 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/22/business/media/james-patterson-has-a-big-plan-for-small-books.html?_r=0.

Blain, Loz. “Spritz reader: Getting words into your brain faster.” New Atlas. 4 March 2014, http://newatlas.com/spritz-speed-reading-galaxy-s5/31063/.

Carr, Nicholas. “Is Google Making Us Stupid.” The Atlantic. July/August 2008, http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/07/is-google-making-us-stupid/306868/.

CBC News. “Desktop internet use by Canadians highest in world, comScore says.” 27 March 2015, http://www.cbc.ca/news/business/desktop-internet-use-by-canadians-highest-in-world-comscore-says-1.3012666.

Kelly, Kevin. “Reading in a Whole New Way.” Smithsonian Mag. August 2010, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/40th-anniversary/reading-in-a-whole-new-way-1144822/.

Konnikova, Maria. “Being a Better Online Reader.” The New Yorker. 16 July 2014, http://www.newyorker.com/science/maria-konnikova/being-a-better-online-reader.

Lefferts, Daniel. “Spritz Reading App: 9 Classic Novels You Can Read in Under 4 Hours.” Bookish. 7 March 2014, https://www.bookish.com/articles/spritz-reading-app-9-classic-novels-you-can-read-in-under-4-hours/.

Mason, Paul. “Ebooks are changing the way we read, and the way novelists write.” The Guardian. 10 August 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/aug/10/ebooks-are-changing-the-way-we-read-and-the-way-novelists-write.

Neal, Meghan. “A Wearable Book Feeds You Its’ Characters Emotions As You Read.” Vice. 25 January 2014, http://motherboard.vice.com/blog/a-wearable-book-feeds-you-its-characters-emotions-as-you-read.

Peretz, Evgenia. “It’s Tartt—But Is It Art?” Vanity Fair. 11 June 2014, http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2014/07/goldfinch-donna-tartt-literary-criticism.

Rowe, Elizabeth. “If We ‘Wore’ These Books, All the Feels would End Us.” Bookish. 28 January 2014, https://www.bookish.com/articles/if-we-wore-these-books-all-the-feels-would-end-us/.

Scott, Joanna. “The Virtues of Difficult Fiction.” The Nation. 30 July 2015, https://www.thenation.com/article/the-democracy-of-difficult-fiction/.

2 Replies to “Reading and Innovation in a Digital World”

  1. This essay discusses the ways in which the internet has changed how people consume and create written works. The topic is defined within the broader context of the history of reading and publishing, emphasizing that these acts have always been evolving. The author argues that we should be adapting to new reading environments and building skills to preserve our ability to read deeply and critically on a variety of platforms.

    The essay is organized into two parts. First, evidence is presented to support the idea that digital reading is changing what and how people read. Second, examples are given to demonstrate what publishers and writers are doing to respond to these changes. The overall flow is logical and the author’s argument is easy to follow.

    I particularly enjoyed how the author considered not only the negative side effects of digital reading, but also the potential it provides us to “hone new skills and change the way we absorb information.” The acknowledgement that individuals may prosper in different reading environments was also refreshing.

    However, there were a couple points that I will push back on. First, the author suggests that deep reading is derived from long-form content, and that the internet’s trend towards shorter content is threatening this skill set. I would like to have seen something to support the idea that short content cannot lend itself just as well to deep reading. After all, you can think critically about a 100 word poem, so why not a short web article? This idea would have lent further support to emerging platforms such as the Spritz speed-reading app.

    Another point I am not convinced by is presented in the Meghan Neal quote, which argues that words, imagination, and “basic human empathy” are not enough to engage readers in the digital age. The book industry, whether selling digital or print products, still largely sells words, and it still produces operating revenues of $1.7 billion a year in Canada alone. So, can we really say that people are no longer engaged by words and imagination?

    That having been said, I do like the suggestion that new technology can add value to books and provide alternatives for how authors create immersive experiences. The idea that new digital technologies are to be embraced rather than contended with is emphasized by the fascinating examples of MIT’s wearable book and Spritz’s speed-reading app. Overall, I found the essay to be effective in its argument for a progressive and adaptive approach to writing and publishing.

  2. This essay provides a good summary of some Wolf and Carr’s ideas on how digital reading in shaping our brains, coupled with some examples of how it, in turn, is affecting how and what authors write. The essay is successful at making this link, and in explaining how one leads to the other. (Despite the fact that this is not what the essay claims it aims to do.) It could, however, dedicate more time to the latter (the author’s contribution) and less on the former (a summary of what has already been said). It also suffers somewhat from some unsubstantiated claims and perspectives. Otherwise, a nice contribution to continue the conversation beyond Wolf.

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