Deep Reading & Digital Literacy

Maryanne Wolf is one of the foremost scholars on reading and the brain, with other academic interests including dyslexia and psychological studies, as well as global literacy and poverty. In Proust and the Squid, published in 2007, Wolf goes through the history of human development on reading. In neurological research, scientists started to change their hypothesis of the ‘static’ human brain and developed the idea of neuroplasticity—the notion that the brain adjusts its connections and programming with use or disuse. Wolf says this is how we, as humans, learned to read—by training our brain to recognize a symbolic code of visual and verbal cues. Unlike human vision, oral language, or cognition, there is no genetic equivalent for learning to read.

Although Wolf considers up to the 21st century, her book is now nine years old, and the article in the New Yorker is already two years old. “In the seven years it had taken [Wolf] to research and write her account, reading had changed profoundly” states Konnikova. Fortunately, according to Wolf’s most recent bio, she has two books forthcoming in 2016: What It Means to be Literate: A Literacy Agenda for the 21st Century (Oxford University Press) and Letters to the Good Reader: The Contemplative Dimension in the Future Reading Brain (HarperCollins).

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For the Love of Metadata

In Laura Dawson’s chapter in Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto (2012), she addresses “What We Talk About When We Talk About Metadata”.

Beginning with a brief history of metadata, Dawson notes that, “because a book is no longer a physical object, discoverability via metadata is only just now becoming a front-office problem.” She explains how this coincides with Brian O’Leary’s chapter about the “book” no longer being the physical container that holds the content. I think this also integrates with the marketing and discoverability of a title has become more of a front-office problem. For example, if a potential author doesn’t have an existing web presence, that is considered a huge problem for a publisher. The author is expected to take on a marketing role, and without having a platform to do so, they are facing a steeper climb to discoverability.
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Thinking as a Digital Native

Reader Response | Monica Miller | 31 January 2016

Brantley’s post from 29 April 2013, “The New Ones: The Only Horizon Is Before Us” tells a brief narrative of a young graduate who designs web-based solutions for books. Brantley’s assessment seems both horrified and amazed by the lack of knowledge this colleague has about the history of epub. On one hand, it is important to know what came before, so you can learn from history. Yet on the other hand, the young programmer is unburdened by the expectations or perceived limitations of the form. I think this is the point that Brantley drives home by the end—because this programmer thinks as a digital native, he also problem solves as a digital native.

This is the crux of many arguments around adapting books for screens—that the industry is burdened by existing assumptions of how the book looks on the page. The limitations of the page do not translate to the web, yet the industry cannot seem to think off the page. Brantley, as we can assume by his conference Books in Browsers, is a huge proponent of a web-first strategy for publishing.

It’s incredibly important to keep in mind that this post is from 2013. So much has changed for epub and books online since 2013, probably even 6 months after Brantley wrote that post. In fact, it’s a bit significant that the O’Reilly’s Tools of Change conference also wrapped in 2013 and now the Books in Browsers conference has gone on hiatus (as of 2015). A cynic could say that this is because these forms are going nowhere, but I don’t think that’s entirely accurate. I think that the idea of books in browsers— digital storytelling, web-first publishing, long form online journalism, whatever you call it—has changed so much and so rapidly that it’s impossible to keep up. The idea of web-first publishing is so pervasive and exists in so many different iterations and forms; how do you encompass it all in a single conference? How do you even begin to define it when it encompasses so many hundreds of thousands of content producers online?

This reading also ties in to what we were speaking about last week, with Mike Shatzkin’s article about publishing being in a world not of our own making. Online narratives are so dependent on the platforms of browsers, computer systems and the web itself, that keeping up with best practices is a full-time job. Just taking one look at makes my head swim.

There seem to be two camps: those stuck in the existing assumptions of print-first publishing, where digital reading is treated as “paper under glass”; and those who come from a completely different direction of what online narrative can be. However, these two camps are not isolated from one another. It is not one or the other; I see it as a fluid spectrum of content creators. Those closer to the latter camp are changing the concept of online content, how people read digitally, and how we interact with narrative online. Companies like Wattpad and Medium are good examples of this, as are practically all the examples we read about a couple weeks ago from Josh Stearns’ article on Medium, “The Best of Online Storytelling and Journalism of 2014”. I think what Brantley’s post embodies is this awe that in 2013 there are people who belong exclusively to that latter camp, as many arguments against digital-first publishing have come from the former archaic assumptions camp.