How We Read

I learned to read when I was four years old. I soon became quite avid and I remember feeling a bit at sea if we went out somewhere and I forgot to bring a book “just in case” we had to wait in traffic or something. My parents enrolled me in a Book of the Month Club for kids, and I was always glad to see the MS Read-a-thon come around.

I was always in honors English throughout the school years, and in college I majored in English with a side of Italian literature (would have been a minor but they didn’t offer enough courses while I was there). Lots and lots of reading. After a long stint in the corporate world where all I read was emails and procedure manuals (with still a slightly obsessive amount of reading for pleasure) I am now a book editor. The highest reader’s ambition: to be paid to read!

But…reading also has a flip side. Have you ever tried to not read something in front of you? Next time you’re out on the town, try to not read billboards, or shop window signs. Can you do it?

When my newborn son was in the hospital, we would drive from our home to the hospital at least once a day on a major highway. Of course (this not being in Vermont) there was a liberal sprinkling of billboards all along the route. One day I just didn’t want to have my consciousness littered with ads for mortgage loans, the state lottery, or harness racing, so I made an effort not to look at the signs.

I almost couldn’t do it. It was like my gaze was magnetically drawn to anything with words. I ended up studiously looking at the weeds growing on the side of the road (Papa was driving) or at the sky or the other cars, though that had its dangers too: few and far between are the cars in California without bumper stickers, personalized license plates, or custom license plate frames with cute phrases.

I thought of those daily drives down I-80 when I read this article discussing Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, which asserts that learning to read rewires your brain. I wonder how different my consciousness would be if it weren’t so obsessed with words. Like how I can’t remember foreign language words unless I see or hear them spelled out–why can’t I just remember the sounds themselves? Part of it is that I (and humans in general) am a visual creature–I also sometimes add numbers in a visual way, arranging them into a pattern of dots in my mind.

But then I came across this article, which discusses a study of online reading. Though the study sample was quite small (n=25), and was skewed toward users with higher abilities, the results are still rather depressing: “Users will read about 20% of the text on the average page,” and “On an average visit, users read half the information only on those pages with 111 words or less.”

So, now we’re talking about a different kind of reading. Lots of people make jokes about the short attention span of the internet. Most people I know do not want to read for pleasure on a screen the same way they do with printed materials. Most blog marketers advise a post length maximum of 250 words, the equivalent of one double-spaced paper page of typing. The word count of this post is now at about 550 words, so if you’re still with me, consider yourself part of the internet elite!

Are we rewiring our brains to consume words in a different manner by reading online? Is this merely a manifestation of our ever-shorter conception of time and ever-busier mindset, or are we fundamentally changing our brains? I suppose only time will tell. And until I see Maasai warriors carrying PDAs or Anatolian shepherds checking on their laptops, I’ll remind myself that these concerns do not affect large swathes of humanity, just pampered Westerners.



Filed under Blogging, Books, Deep Thoughts, editing, Writing

8 responses to “How We Read

  1. I think we’re re-wiring ourselves. Last fall I noticed that my attention span had greatly diminished. I wasn’t reading many book, etc. I cut way back on my computer use and things improved. Yet another reason why my kids don’t need to be on the computer….

    I’m an anti-billboard fanatic having lived in Maine before VT. I’ll be so bummed if billboards really do arrive in VT.

  2. You bring out such a good point. I have been concerned about what the amount of internet reading I do has done to my attention span and try to limit myself.
    I do think you have a fabulous job- being paid to read. 🙂

  3. Paid to read! You lucky thing. I do worry that internet reading makes me more agitated, more ‘fast pace’ – so I think you make a good point. I have been helping someone test their new website – I didn’t need to read the text but of course, I did – not even intentionally but I can’t look at a page and not read it – I guess some of us are just bookworms!

  4. Uggh, this is something I have recently been examining. Like you, I am an avid reader and have been for as long as I can remember. I notice that now I have to work to slow down. I don’t think (in my case, at least) this is so much a result of the internet as of childbearing. I now do everything faster (and more half-assed!…I feel like Charles Bingley when he’s talking about how he writes letters so quickly that he screws up half the words.) I find that I simply cannot focus on only one thing at a time, be it reading or cooking, whatever.

    Now, instead of multi-tasking (what a crock) I am forcing myself to slowly single-task.

  5. Sometimes I’m suspicious that my computer use affects my time available for “real” reading even more than my attention span. And then there’s the real difference in intention between reading online and on paper. I typically use the internet for finding information or for reading I intend to be short, like blogs or short articles. So I wonder if something similar affected the study results I quoted. The article did mention that they discarded overly long pages as probably user agreements or academic articles that would be printed for reading!

    Goodwitch reminded me of another place where true conscious intention often gets neglected: handwriting. My son like to have me write stories for his drawings, or things like the little menus he and Napoleona dictated to me this morning to accompany their play dough restaurant. I find myself realizing that I want to model careful, beautiful writing for them. I have have pretty neat handwriting and printing in general, but it’s another place where I realized that I don’t really pay attention most of the time.

  6. I notice on longer posts on other people’s blogs (ahem) I tend to skim read and then read again, if I am interested. I really think that the computer causes us shorter attention spans, it also makes me cranky if I am on too long.
    I did read your post in its entirety.

  7. Lisa Anne: Thanks for hanging in there! 🙂

  8. This post terrifies me. Because, so much of what the kids do is on the internet… It is easier to skim on the Internet, but on a page, a book that you hold, you read… you savor. (Although I read all of your words here.) This bothers me… I had no idea who Internet reading affected the brain.

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