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So what if modern people are losing the ability to read novels?

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5 minutes to read What exactly is reading for, and what counts as “serious” reading anyway?

The Washington Post reports that “serious” reading is taking a hit from online skimming.

It is a very interesting article, and worth spending the time on—if you can focus for that long any more!

In one respect, I have not found myself as affected by this phenomenon as others apparently have. I do almost all my scholarly reading on a 7″ tablet, in immersive mode, where email notifications and so on are suppressed. I find I can concentrate very well in that format, and have good recall of what I’ve read.

But this article does raise a question for me.

Why think that “serious reading” = “reading novels”?

Does it matter that we are starting to suck at reading novels, or classic literature? Is there some reason to want our brains to be better at reading long fiction or 18th century prose than at assimilating information by scanning for keywords, or reading short, highly-focused essays?

Is there some reason to think our trouble keeping track of convoluted syntax and structure is a symptom of poor reading, rather than poor writing? The fact that many of the classics are written in this way does not give prima facie support to the idea that they are good in this respect. One of the reasons I have so little interest in historical theology is that it requires reading extremely long-winded, meandering primary material that I simply can’t be bothered with. Why should we think that just because authors back then didn’t have the luxury of easily editing their work, and just because readers back then didn’t have anything better to do than learn to read tortuous prose, that reading it today is a skill we should want everyone to have?

Cogitate on this: what if we treated the skill of reading as a subset of the skill of writing? What if we taught people to write well, and reading developed naturally from that? How might that change things?

Reading is teleological

To evaluate how good one is at it, and whether one’s abilities and habits are good or bad, requires knowing what one wishes to achieve. I use reading almost exclusively to learn, with a small subset for entertainment. But I have quite varied interests, and I find it vastly more helpful in general to read short essays or papers which develop a single, narrow thesis, than to read books which develop a much broader one.

Indeed, I believe a majority of books could be cut down to 20-page essays without losing anything except the fluff their authors felt compelled to include to justify their dust-jackets.

This is also why much of what I write is in serial form; many of my articles are precisely-targeted arguments within a larger thesis. It is much easier to read one short article and think it over before returning to a second point the next day, than to read all the points at once in a lengthy piece and give them all due consideration. And this is how I teach people to write when I coach them (which is one of the services I offer professionally). Every piece revolves around a single premise; and the more focused it is the better.

Reduced comprehension when reading on digital media?

Researchers have known for some time that reading on a screen is not as good for comprehension as reading on paper. That, of course, is a worry; but it is a very over-simplified—and frankly overblown—statistic:


Firstly, it’s not clear to me that my reading comprehension is poorer on screen than in print. I realize I could be wrong, as is suggested by the Israeli study the article mentions. But I almost never read anything in print, and I seem to get by pretty well. Is it possible that at least part of the problem is familiarity? If you’re completely accustomed to reading on a screen, and do all your study like that, is it really likely you won’t at least find it as effective after several years than reading off paper?

This seems to hinge significantly on two other issues…

Screen quality

From what I’ve read (and common sense), poor comprehension is strongly influenced by the kind of screen you’re reading on. You’ll have a much harder time accurately recalling the details of an essay you read while hunched in front of a flickering old 14″ CRT, than one you read while curled up with a 300+ ppi tablet.

Lower “straight-reading” comprehension is offset by vastly higher “cross-reading” comprehension

What I mean is, all the comprehension tests I’m aware of are done with direct comparisons between one group reading a passage on paper, another group reading that passage on a screen, and both doing a standardized test. But this basically eliminates everything about digital reading that gives it any advantage over print in the first place! If you treat digital reading as identical to print reading, and do a straight comparison of reading comprehension in both, then it’s not surprising if digital reading loses.

But what if you did a fairer test?

What if you put both your test groups in a library with wifi access, and gave them the same passage to read, and told each to come to as good an understanding of it as possible in, say, 30 minutes? Surely even average readers familiar with high-end tablets (crisp screens, light weight, responsive UIs) would try googling the passage; while the readers who were stuck with using paper would have a much harder time finding and slogging through reference books in half an hour using a card catalog (remember—no screens!) And if your group is comprised of more skilled readers the situation would change even more dramatically.

I can personally attest that my knowledge of the Bible has improved vastly since I started reading on a tablet, precisely because I have instant access to a plethora of resources, ranging from commentaries and translation notes to interlinears and lexicons, that I can easily use whenever I have the slightest question about what I’m reading. This kind of parallel reading dramatically increases the ease and speed at which one can develop a deep, accurate understanding of a passage compared to linear reading of a single Bible. It actually baffles me to see young people with ready access to and familiarity with technology coming to Bible studies with 3 kg study Bibles that contain only a fraction of the information—which in turn takes longer to find—than my 300 g tablet.

If we’re not taking this kind of cross-reading advantage into account when assessing reading comprehension, then we aren’t assessing it right.

And if digital readers aren’t using this advantage, then surely we should focus on training them to do so from a young age, rather than thinking we need to double-down on ramming home straight-reading skills? I realize I’m assuming a very research-oriented point of view, where we’re basically trying to turn our kids into scholars. But…isn’t that a good thing?

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