What do we talk about when we talk about digital reading?

We have been comparing digital reading to reading in print for a very long time. However, in many discussions, I noticed that people did not tend to differentiate what kind of digital reading was being compared. Digital reading has become an umbrella term that could refer to online reading, reading with ebooks or even listening to audiobooks. I believe it is time to look closer at digital reading and differentiate one type of digital reading from another.


1. Online reading: reading on websites with either computers, laptops, tablets or mobile phones

Personally, I read on websites only for news or articles. I have never finished an entire book with my web browser although I know some people may have done that. For example, I was quite shocked when I found my roommate could finish a very long novel that was published on a fanfiction website.

For me, I found it was very difficult to stay focused when I read on websites. I tend to skim read a lot and become very easy to be distracted by anything going on the websites. Sometimes it could a pop-up ad, sometimes it could be the hyperlinks embedded in the article, sometimes I just automatically start to check my Facebook without even being aware of it. For this reason, I really want to name this type of reading “the open reading” because my mind is still open to all sorts of notifications and distractions in this reading environment.

I am not the only one. A survey found that, on Slate, a daily magazine on the web publishing about politics, business, technology, and culture, most readers scroll to about 50 percent of the article (shown by the graph below).  Well, I did have to admit, I was also one of them.


Cognitive neuroscientists had worried that our online reading habit may have negatively influenced our ability to read in print. That is, when we read in print, we would be less able to process long and complex sentences because we had become so used to read shorter sentences online.

This alerted scientists but some of them believed that there are advantages to both ways of reading and there is potential for a bi-literate brain as long as educators start to train students to read both on screen and in print properly.

I agreed and I think deep reading on screen may be achieved by extra tools such as Hypothes.is. It helped me to slow down and to go back and forth between the paragraphs to figure out the logic connections. Also, with Hypothesis turning on, I would feel like I’m seriously learning so I would consciously control my self from checking Facebook.

Overall, for the purpose of learning, I will rate reading on websites 3 out of 5 but I believe that it could be improved to 4 with training and extra tools.


2. Reading with an ebook reader or a specific app designed for reading

Another popular digital reading is to read with an ebook reader or with a specific app on your phone (such as the Kindle app). Personally, I often use ebook readers or an app to read an entire book. In my opinion, reading with a specific app is similar to reading with an ebook reader. They both require you to take an extra step (to buy an ebook reader or to download an app) to read! Because of this extra step, I will be more serious when I read with an ebook reader or an app.

Most ebook readers had been trying to resemble print books with its display and page-turning function. Comparing to reading on websites, there are generally fewer ads going on but if you are reading with a phone, you are still very likely to be distracted by notifications.

Another feature I like about reading this way is that I can highlight sentences I think are interesting and I will be able to go back to these notes later.

Overall, I would like to rate this type of digital reading 4 out of 5 for its convenience and its capability to hold numerous books at the same time. Despite that, I am still not a keen ebook reader because I had spent way too much time on the screen every day for my school work (and sometimes for Netflix), I am eager to do something without looking at the screen when I want to relax. Therefore, I’m going to tell you about my new hobby–listening to an audiobook!


3. “Reading” audiobooks

Thanks to Moorea and Avvai who highly recommended me to “read” audiobooks, I now had finished 4 audiobooks! They are mostly fictions and mostly fun read for entertainment.

Audiobooks are the best when you want to multitask. Usually, I will listen to an audiobook when I was commuting, doing chores or sometimes designing for Mauve’s class (don’t tell her!). That is, when I do anything that is not text-related, I would be able to listen to an audiobook at the same time.

After listening to several audiobooks, I realized that it could be a good way for ESL students to learn English. For me, I always found it really hard to learn about all of the slangs and informal way to speak because when we learn English in school, it is always based on textbooks with an academic objective (TOFEL, IELTS, SAT, etc). Those exams will never teach you how to talk casually when you just want to chat with your coworkers or friends.

In the past, I tried to watch a lot of TV shows to learn about the slangs but it was exhausting to my eyes. However, with audiobooks, it would be much more comfortable. I think anyone who wants to learn another language should try to listen to the audiobooks in that language.

However, for me, listening to an audiobook is not the best way for deep thinking. For example, if it is for Hannah’s history class, I would definitely not listen to the textbook. For that scenario, I would prefer a print book.

Overall, I would rate audiobook 4.5 out of 5. This is my favourite way of digital reading so far.


In conclusion, I think they are all reading. I would choose the way for reading according to the circumstances or my purpose. If I am jogging, audiobook! If I want to learn about the update on technology-related news, read something online with Medium! If I need to prepare for a test, probably a print book for me. There is definitely no “pure” form of reading. Let’s just READ!

Works cited

Rosenwald, Michael. 2014, April 6. Serious reading takes a hit from online scanning and skimming, researchers say. Washington Post.

Manjoo. Farhad. 2013, June 6. You Won’t Finish This Article: Why people online don’t read to the end. Slate.

 

Innovation not Limitation

In Hannah McGregor’s history of publishing class, we often talked about how new technology doesn’t “kill” old technology, that they can in fact live alongside one another. Spotify exists, so do record players, both are forms of listening to music, both offer different experiences and both are great. There’s this fear with digital reading that the print book will become obsolete, a fear that it will disappear. On top of that there’s this added fear of the new technology. It’s a habit we humans have. When Gutenberg’s print book was “invented” they called it witchcraft and lamented for the handwritten books of the scribes. When the handwritten book was “invented” they mourned the loss of the scroll. When people started writing stories down Socrates said it would melt our brains and we’d never be able to remember anything anymore… that oral storytelling was the way to go. My point is, “reading” (storytelling) is an ever changing form, that all forms past and present count, and no form is more “pure” than the rest. I also argue it’s more important to look at it as storytelling instead of reading and that it’s our thirst for an entertaining narrative that spurs innovation.

When reading online I tend to have a difficult time settling into a longer reading, and am instead used to skimming for pertinent information. Even when I’m interested in what I’m reading, I find myself wanting to skip forward and get to the point. It’s only when I force myself to slow down and focus (hypothes.is helps accomplish this) that I can connect with the longer form of online reading. Then again, it honestly hurts my eyes if I stare at a screen for too long (Digital Eye Strain). This is more about personal preference than anything, and I prefer print if I’m doing long form reading.

Of course, online reading is good for quickly disseminating information. While there has been a rash of fake news, there’s also credible sources (NY Times, Kottke, Shatzkin etc.) out there that are able to produce reliable articles. Plus, even the longer articles are pretty short in the grand scheme of things. There’s also the ability to update information if someone is able to disprove a “fact”, or there’s at least the ability to have a conversation around it (in the comments). Aside from the standard Medium sized article (pun intended), there are micro stories (tweets and tweet threads) or lengthy, novel sized stories (fanfiction). Both have their own tone, and allow for different levels of detail and expression.

Technology doesn’t limit the stories we can tell, it allows us to be even more innovative than before. From Twinscapes to Twitter, humans enjoy sharing narratives and are hungry for them in any form they present themselves. Some forms work better for some people than others for a variety of reasons. Audio books (oral narrative) work better for people who want to multi-task or enjoy the “company” of someone telling them a story. I prefer print books because they don’t strain my eyes and force me to focus more on the narrative. Other people prefer ebooks because they’re cheap and easy. Here’s the best part, you aren’t limited to one form or the other, you can enjoy all forms of narrative as many people do.

Reading is Reading is Reading… or is it?

Is reading a book on your phone different than on your computer, or on an ereader? Are we good at reading digitally? Does digital reading change the way we perceive text? Context, including distractions like internet connectivity, plays a large role in how various digital reading experiences can be distinguished.

Context shapes how we read and how we interpret what we read. The surrounding elements of a book or piece of text such as where a person is reading, the goals they have for the reading experience (whether they want to be informed or entertained etc.), and the interface of the text all will change how the text is perceived. Reading on your computer or phone has an innate connectivity, that many ereaders don’t have. When I’m on my phone I feel like I’m in a state of multi-tasking because the phone itself has the so many other functions outside of just reading. With many tabs and apps open all at once, I can hop from my ebook, to look something up on Google, check in with Instagram, text a friend, then get back into the book. Patricia Greenfield found that multi-tasking slows the reading speed down, although it doesn’t seem to impact understanding of the text. I can definitely relate to that finding about, however I would  argue that my comprehension takes a hit from this experience because I’m not focused and engaging deeply.

Since ereaders are designed primarily for reading (rather than other actions like browsing, texting or emailing), I can imagine that I would be able to focus on reading much more than attempting to read on my phone. When I read, I want to do so in a printed format so that I can limit distractions and really immerse myself, but that is perhaps because I grew up reading printed books and I’ve been really stubborn in transitioning to digital experiences. An ereading device would, in theory, offer me the distraction free reading experience I’m looking for.

I really like Maria Konnikova’s stance on this debate as she doesn’t say which type of reading experience is best, but rather that as we all start to read online more and more, we just need to become better digital readers and learn how to work at limiting distractions in order to have deeper reading experiences online. She stated in her New Yorker article, “We cannot go backwards. As children move more toward an immersion in digital media, we have to figure out ways to read deeply there.”

I think that ebooks have come a long way for reader retention and comprehension, but what I think will really require more work, as Konnikova suggests, is articles or other forms of long format articles found online. For the similar reasons of distraction, I find myself giving less importance to online reading experiences. I often scan through the text since there is so much surrounding the text from ads and links to “related articles” and more. I don’t see the reading experience as in depth or valuable as a printed book because of this. Again, this is likely my own personal bias coming through. With learning and practice I could reverse the effects of years a childhood of reading in print.

Since each digital reading experience is so different, and has not had the benefit of hundreds of years of refinements like the reading of printed books, we still have a long way to go. Consider even hyperlinked interactive books, how do we become good readers of those? Are we able to remove distractions all together because of their ability to immerse readers into the story by allowing their choices to impact how the content plays out? Each of these new digital reading experiences have different contextual elements that distinguish them. We grapple with these elements in order to have an optimal reading experience and we may require new skills and practice to become better digital readings.


While observing the differences in reading experiences one question that also comes to my mind is one about form. Do we read or listen to audiobooks? I keep overhearing discussions and reading articles that make mention of audiobooks as a form of reading a book but I don’t entirely agree. I don’t agree because the definition of reading that I have come to adopt is that reading is done by visually decoding text. But, even as I type that statement, I realize that this overly simplified definition negates using braille as a form of reading, when vision is not required at all.

A screen reader may be reading the text to the user who is listening, but does that then mean that people with visual impairments don’t read? I definitely would disagree with that statement so I think my definition of reading needs updating. I would call upon the wikipedia definition, but even it’s explanation of reading needs to be revised. The page states, “The symbols are typically visual” and acknowledges both printed and tactile texts that can be read, but there is no mention on the entire page about audio.

As Linda Flanagan 

I really like this quote by William Irwin that states, “Audio books began as a boon to the blind and dyslexic and have been mistaken as a refuge for the illiterate and lazy.”  This article by Writer’s Edit outlines a helpful summary of the two sides of this debate and has started to convince me that listening to an audiobook is a form of reading especially when you look at the comprehension rates of reading visually or ‘reading’ by way of listening. I look forward to following how this debate unfolds.

Tracking Reader Data

One of the major advantages to ebooks is the ability to track reading habits of your books. You can see how long it took a reader to finish your book or at what point they stopped reading it altogether, and a variety of other data as well.

During the Emerging Leaders Conference, I talked to Dave Andersen from Kobo about tracking reading habits. They have plenty of data on general reading habits, but when I asked him about anthology specific data he said they weren’t tracking that (neither is BookNet, by the way). If you know a specific book is an anthology, you can look at the data in general, but it’s no different than the data you would get for a novel or nonfiction book.

But I have specific questions when it comes to short fiction reading habits.

When I’m selling books, I often am able to sell anthologies to people who don’t read a lot because they can finish an entire story start to finish in one sitting, then come back to the book months later and start an entirely new story without having to remember what they read last time. Now, these people likely aren’t the people who own eReaders, but the concept can still apply. Someone might read one short story in between novels, or on their commute because they have just enough time.

Given the stop and start features of an anthology, I have a few specific questions I’d like answered:

  1. Do people read one story at a time, or a few stories at a time?
  2. How often will someone read an anthology start to finish without reading anything else in between?
  3. Do people always read the first story first, second story second, and so on? Or do people prefer to jump around?
  4. And how does genre or type of story factor into the answers of the above three questions?

The answers to these questions can affect production of anthologies. It can take a lot of time and deliberation to determine the order in which the stories will appear in the anthology (choosing which stories to accept can be the easy part, ordering them is a whole different story). I spend a lot of time focusing on this because I assume that most people will read the stories in the order they appear in the book, but this assumption could be completely off base.

From what I’ve gathered talking to many industry people, anthologies aren’t a major focus of data collection, so I doubt I’ll be getting these answers any time soon. I’ll just have to find another way to figure it out.