Thursday, April 10, 2014

Reading Styles Differ Between Digital and Traditional, Study Says

Is the digital world teaching us bad reading habits?

In a nutshell, when you read online, you do a lot of skimming for content, looking for keywords or core ideas, and passing over details (unless you're really interested). That's a style that doesn't work with some of the greats in literature: they often use complex syntax with all kinds of subclauses and periodically go on tangents.

I find it interesting that the woman interviewed for the article, Claire Handscombe, confessed to having such problems focusing on reading. (Also, trouble focusing on The Glass Bead Game? In my experience Herman Hesse is a lot more accessible than other literary giants. Girl, you may want to reconsider that MFA in creative writing if this is the case.) In my experience, it's been easy for me to shift from "Internet reading" to "book reading"; this may be due to the fact that I rarely skim, even online. Sure I skip over some articles in my RSS feed (who doesn't?), but I typically decide by the first paragraph if I'm going to skip the whole thing or not, then give everything else my full attention. Until I hit the next article I don't feel like reading, anyway.

It's no surprise to me, though, that comprehension is demonstrably better when you're reading a dead tree version than when you're reading an ebook version. I don't think that tactile sensation of holding a book, touching a page, or even the smell of the ink is just book fetishizing; I think it helps us immerse ourselves in the reading experience and therefore read better.

Do you think the Internet and social media has changed the way you read?


  1. Like you, I don't often skim, even online. That said, the internet (not so much social media) has changed the way I read in one major way: I'm far more willing to "give up" on a book or series that I'm not finding enjoyment in reading any longer when I can easily go online and get a quick summary of the plot.

    I'm a finisher when it comes to stories (whether written or visual/audible), in that I like to know how things end, so in the past, I'd continue reading or watching things long after I'd stopped enjoying them fully just to know how the story ends up. Now that I can find that online if I want to, I can make time for the gazillion other things I want to read (or watch) without feeling guilty about not finding out how something ended (or knowing that I can catch up as more is published).

    In a couple of cases, I've found that the approach has reinvigorated my love of the series and I'll go back and read the rest without it feeling like a chore, as well.

    I don't think my comprehension suffers from a lack of tactile sensation, and I do love the convenience of eReaders, but that doesn't stop me from wanting to curl up with a real book now and then.

    1. Man, I didn't even think about spoilers and the Internet. I do that a lot with movies I don't think I'll ever want to watch (for whatever reason), but less so with books. If I ragequit a book, I typically don't even care how it ends. (What up, A Death in the Family?) In fact, I'm more likely to look up books I finished and liked (or books I liked but could no longer renew at the library) to see what other people had to say about it or if there was anything I missed.

  2. I think the idea in the article of having a bi-literate brain is spot-on. There is SO MUCH to know in this world; it's impossible to know it all. I do like to dip a toe into lots of things, and then deep read certain things.

    That said, I certainly haven't ever come across this problem this gal had, or professors are reporting about students having, of simply not being able to read and comprehend novels, etc. To me, that's far less about doing so much online reading, and far more about everything they've been exposed to so far having been spoonfed to them - everything, in their textbooks and everything, in those same choppy sentences they're pointing out are prevalent online. Yes, they are prevalent online, but that's certainly not the only place they reside.

    So you ask, do I think the internet and social media has changed the way I read? I certainly read far more now, and a greater variety of things. I have learned to skim, but I have to turn that on; I still default to close reading of anything I bother to read.

    I tell you, I was shocked to realize that at least some of my book club members are skimming the novels - I really honestly can't see the point in bothering with a novel if you're only going to skim it. An article or a textbook, yeah, okay, you might not be that interested, but maybe you feel compelled to for reasons of grades or being able to have water cooler chat or whatever. A novel, though? If it's not interesting, don't read it. Read the wikipedia page if you really want to, or skip it altogether.

    1. Seems Google ate my reply, but:

      I think some of the failures of students in reading might be a result of the single-minded focus on testing in American schools. Reading tests always rely on skimming the piece in a short amount of time and learning how to track for items of interest and the "gist" ("Where did Peggy grow up?" "What should the headline of the piece be?"). It's important practical skill for life and one you need (and a skill you learn to teach in class a LOT when you get ESL training), but it is obviously not the best way to approach reading a novel.

      I tell you, I was shocked to realize that at least some of my book club members are skimming the novels - I really honestly can't see the point in bothering with a novel if you're only going to skim it.

      Same. If I start skimming (doesn't take much, I'm a naturally fast reader) I evaluate why I'm skimming: if it's dull fluff (endless ballgown descriptions or a particularly gimmicky format), I skim until I'm back at the story again. If I'm tired or lacking in focus, I either put the book down for a bit or force myself to slow down and reread. But if I find myself skimming an entire book? No way. I just toss it aside (metaphorically) and move on to the next one.

      That said, I can see how if I were in a book club, for the sake of social inertia (or whatever), it'd be easier for me to skim through the odd novel I didn't find very compelling or interesting and still stay in touch with meetings etc. than for me to dip in and out depending on the book.