Teaching the Art of Reading in the Digital Era
As the art of close reading has declined, a cohort of experts has emerged to reverse the trend and encourage stronger reading habits.
“What queer disease is this,” wrote the late-19th-century psychologist William James, “of holding things and staring at them like that for hours, paralyzed of motion and vacant of all conscious life.” The physical act of sustained reading is certainly strange. It can even be off-putting. In the novel Middlemarch, the stodgy Mr. Featherstone observes as much when he discovers his servant, Mary Garth, lost in a novel. “I can’t abide to see her reading to herself,” he says. But for the person hunched over Middlemarch, losing oneself in such a way is a rarefied form of bliss. It’s beyond reproach.
Perhaps the oddest aspect of reading is that, for all the pleasures of the text, we must be taught to do it. Recognizing symbols and signs, as well as the ability to assign them meaning, might be innate to the human brain, but directing these abilities to follow words on the page — a relatively new skill in human history — requires instruction. Like a child learning to ride a bike without training wheels, the magical moment comes when the parent lets go and the child pedals off — and keeps going. “The most significant kind of learning,” writes the Stanford University reading specialist Elliot Eisner, “creates a desire to pursue learning in that field when one doesn’t have to.” The wonder of experiencing a novel (or the sensation of coasting on two wheels) can be habit-forming.
Unfortunately, considerable evidence suggests that Americans are both reading less and reading with less intensity. It’s not unusual to hear well-educated adults who once read regularly now lament the decline in their bookish habits. In a widely circulated 2015 Medium article (“Why Can’t We Read Anymore?”), Hugh McGuire, who founded Librivox, which distributes public-domain audiobooks, highlighted the frenetic nature of digital life as the primary reason for why he was “finding it harder and harder to concentrate on words, sentences, paragraphs. Let alone chapters.” According to a 2016 Pew Research Center survey, the typical American adult now reads only four books a year. Twenty-seven percent didn't read a single book in 2015, and a 2016 report from the National Endowment for the Arts found that reading had dropped, as the Washington Post summarized it, “to at least a three-decade low.”
As the art of close reading — a finely grained analysis of a text — has declined, a cohort of experts has emerged to reverse the trend and encourage stronger reading habits. Their solution has a kind of old-school simplicity to it: We need to allow the physicality of the book itself to lure us back into the pleasures of reading.
Young readers of every generation have faced unique challenges when it comes to staying engaged in a book. But those whose job it is to nurture bibliophilia today compete with more than a radio or a television set that gets a few fuzzy stations. They compete with a universe of data — much of it wildly entertaining — that can be accessed immediately and from virtually any location. Getting lost in a book now means willfully tuning out more distraction than humans have ever encountered before. It’s a challenge for anyone to accomplish, much less a digital native whose young brain is virtually hardwired to the Internet.
And it’s not just the sheer volume of data that’s significant. It’s also the narratives that are rewarded in the digital realm. Research shows that teenagers are especially eager, in the context of social media, to present a story of their lives for consumption. According to a Pew study from mid-2013, 91 percent of teens in the United States were posting photographs of themselves (up from 79 percent less than a decade before, at the height of Myspace’s popularity), 92 percent posted their real names, 84 percent posted their interests, and 62 percent posted their relationship status. Such intimate interactions, situated in the interstices of virtual space, are something teens appear to genuinely enjoy, with a majority of them having had an experience online “that made them feel good about themselves.” Thus today’s reading specialists contend with more than just cat GIFs, listicles, and YouTube: They must convince potential readers that the narratives recorded in hoary old texts can be just as engaging as scrolling through a carefully packaged Instagram story.
In a jungle of entertainment, how do we cultivate an addiction to reading?
“Reading,” says Steve Mannheimer, professor of media arts and science at Indiana University, “doesn’t occur without some fairly specific and concrete combination of physical objects, environment, and purpose.” So one technique is to focus on the book as a book. “Intuitively, I would say that the paper book invites far more physical manipulation with at least the fingers and hands,” he says. “All that finger/hand fidgeting is part of the cognitive process, or at least reinforces the cognitive process of reading.”
There’s other evidence that a traditional book, rather than an electronic tablet, makes for a more engaged reading experience. During research for a paper published in 2014, Anne Mangen, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Stavanger in Norway, compared the reading experience of iPad users and paper traditionalists reading the same material. She found that readers felt less transported by the writing and less able to resist distractions when reading on an iPad than on paper. “When you read on paper you can sense with your fingers a pile of pages on the left growing, and shrinking on the right,” she told the Guardian. Such a “tactile sense of progress,” she suggested, helps readers better follow the storyline.
In a review paper, Australian scholars Stewart Todhunter and Penny de Byl argue that “the ability to touch and smell a book has an innate power, engaging readers in a way not yet possible through pure digitized versions of the same media.” They write that the “human perception of tangibility” is directly linked to the production of knowledge, a connection that originates in an infant’s ability to mentally grasp objects not available for immediate observation. “Although it is possible to touch an ebook,” they write, “the interactivity does not endow the same effect” as an actual book. The fact that “it is not the actual book itself being touched but the device on which it resides” is a distinction that, when it comes to forming reading habits, matters.
The reason for this difference may come down to what the scholars Jim Gerlach and Peter Buxmann call “haptic dissonance”: an alienation from the book as physical book. To better understand this phenomenon, the researchers surveyed avid readers — people who read, on average, 30 books a year — and had them imagine reading a hardcover book and on an e-reader. The study found that 93.3 percent identified “the feel of a page and the paper” and 80 percent identified “the feel of turning a page” as important aspects of reading. When they turned to the e-readers, 56.7 percent explicitly “miss[ed] the paper while turning the pages” while a third reported that, “while holding the book, I can’t feel the progress I’ve made.” Summarizing the research on “the reading brain in the digital age,” Ferris Jabr writes in Scientific American, “evidence from laboratory experiments, polls and consumer reports indicates that modern screens and e-readers fail to adequately recreate certain tactile experiences of reading on paper that many people miss and, more importantly, prevent people from navigating long texts in an intuitive and satisfying way.”
Another thing electronic books cannot provide is something that many reading experts believe is essential for creating an environment conducive to lifelong reading: a room filled with actual books. Lisa Sumner, an English teacher at Bluffton High School in Bluffton, South Carolina, considers it her “life’s work” to be “guiding people to read rigorously.” When we speak about her classroom strategies, she stresses, more than any other factor, the importance of having “a huge classroom library,” with physical books from floor to ceiling there to be grabbed, handled, smelled, shared, and browsed at will. “Being around books does something to people,” she says. “Being in a room where every wall is full of books is a visual reminder” that Sumner thinks is critical to becoming a “book person.”
One study backs up Sumner’s assessment, by identifying a correlation between growing up with a large library of physical books and academic achievement. According to a comprehensive 2010 study published in the journal Research in Social Stratification and Mobility, home library size strongly influences the level of education a child will go on to receive. A house with 500 books, according to the study, “would propel a child 3.2 years further in education” than a home without books.
Sumner takes her teaching cues from New Hampshire-based reading specialist Penny Kittle. Kittle, too, reiterates the importance of the physical book — not so much because students necessarily read better when turning pages, but because physical books tend to encourage an educational atmosphere that fosters book-related interaction. “I will talk to anyone I see with a book,” Kittle says. She wants her students to feel the same way. As she understands it, “being in a community with other readers is essential.” Novel reading may not be, as Suzanne Keen, author of Empathy and the Novel writes, “a team sport.” But it can definitely be the basis on which a range of people will share thoughts in a collegial setting. People who put names to such things call it “dialogic reading.” Carrying a copy of Ulysses around town, or even having one on a shelf, can be a book reader's equivalent to a status update on Facebook.
To that end, Kittle, like Sumner, lines the walls of her classroom with scores of books. She, too, asks her students to survey what’s available and discover what might suit their interests. Because every class begins with discussion of a book—followed by 15 minutes of individual reading time — these teachers want students to know what their peers are reading by seeing the physical books they hold in their hands. Kittle explains that a love of reading happens “when one book leads into another,” a patient process of accumulation that may be more satisfying, she believes, when the objects consumed are tangible. Her students keep careful count of the number of books they have read in a year and refer to that figure with a certain level of pride. Of course, there are many technologically sophisticated ways to track and display your reading progress online, but the experts I spoke to — including Kittle — all agreed that, for their students at least, it helped to see what they had read laid out in front of them in the form of actual books.
And indeed the physical book seems on the verge of a comeback. Actual bookstores are experiencing a notable resurgence. According to the American Booksellers Association, the number of independent bookstores rose 27 percent between 2009 and 2014. The organization's chief executive, Oren Teicher, told the New York Times that, “despite all the quantum leaps in technology, the fact is nothing beats a physical, bricks-and-mortar store to discover books that you didn’t know about.” One case study on the reading habits of middle school boys strongly supports the benefits of browsing a traditional bookstore. Seeking to place subjects in “as textually rich an environment as possible,” the researchers chose not Amazon but “a large independent bookstore,” where the kids were asked to fill an actual shopping basket with actual books. Average browsing time was over 30 minutes (with one boy browsing as long as 72 minutes) — an engagement that would likely not have happened with an algorithm choosing books for you to buy online. (Data on time spent book browsing online is not available, but, for a close comparison, consumers spend about 60 to 90 seconds on Netflix browsing for movies.) If reading specialists such as Sumner and Kittle have their way, it is the next generation — those raised on screens — who will be doing the browsing.
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A version of this story was first published on February 12th, 2018, in Pacific Standard, a magazine that reported on social, economic, and environmental justice issues from its headquarters in Santa Barbara, California, between 2008 and 2019.
Meet: About the Author
James McWilliams is a professor at Texas State University, and the author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly and A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America. His writing on food, agriculture, and animals has appeared in the New York Times, Harper's, the Washington Post, Slate, The Atlantic, and others.