What my students taught me about reading: old books hold new insights for the digital generation



Sophie Elvis/Unsplash

Kate Flaherty, Australian National University

Every year about 150 students enrol in the introductory English literature course at the Australian National University, which I teach. The course includes works by Shakespeare, Austen, Woolf and Dickens.

I know what these books did for me as a student 20 years ago, but times have changed. I am curious to discover what reading these old books does for young people today.

Last year, 2019, saw the first cohort of students who were born in or beyond 2000 – the so-called digital generation. These students have grown up in a world where you can read a book without holding the physical object.




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I decided to introduce the option of a bibliomemoir – an increasingly popular form of creative non-fiction – into their final year assignment. This would allow me to tease out the particular connections students were making between literature and their own lives.

My first year students have grown up in a world where you can read a book without holding the physical object.
Dexter Fernandes

The idea for a bibliomemoir was sparked in a workshop run by our then writer-in-residence, celebrated Australian teen novelist and author of Puberty Blues, Dr Gabrielle Carey.

Carey described bibliomemoir as a piece of writing that shows literary criticism is “best written as a personal tale of the encounter between a reader and a writer”.

Written with flair and precision the students’ bibliomemoirs revealed the formative effects of reading on their lives. Many of their insights related directly to challenges of growing up in the digital age.

They wrote about responding to distraction and cultivating compassion, connection, concentration and resilience.

Why a bibliomemoir?

A bibliomemoir might be an account of how one book or author has shaped a person’s life. Or it might be the memoir of a life structured by reading books. In Outside of a Dog, for instance, Rick Gekoski tells his life story through 25 books that have influenced him, including authors from Dr Seuss to Sigmund Freud.

Gekoski pointed out in an interview that bibliomemoir reveals the formative effects of reading. I saw immediately that I could adapt bibliomemoir to help me understand how my students saw books as shaping their lives.




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So, for the final essay of the introductory English course, Carey and I designed a new essay question. It invited students to write a brief bibliomemoir based on one of the novels in the course. Like a traditional essay this would allow me to evaluate their skills of written expression, argument and technical analysis of literary language.

Students who write the bibliomemoir can still be assessed on technical aspects of their writing style.
Unsplash/Christin Hume

Unlike a traditional essay, it would allow me to see inside their individual reading experience. I would be able to understand how these books were influencing my students’ view of the world and their understanding of themselves.

Here’s what the students wrote

One student shared how reading Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway prompted a conversation with his flatmate about experiences of digital distraction and strategies for concentration:

Soon we came to the subject of Big Ben, which Woolf uses as a motif through the book. [My friend] said that the way Big Ben interrupted the characters’ thoughts reminded her of how a notification from your phone can interrupt your stream of thought.

I had also noticed the motif of Big Ben, however I appreciated it as an element of structure and pacing in a book that had no chapters, in fact I had sometimes structured my reading sessions around the ringing of Big Ben in the book.

Another student, reading of the mental torment experienced by the returned soldier Septimus in Mrs Dalloway, gained a new perspective on people who don’t seem to fit in. Reflecting on her initially judgemental perception of a dishevelled man boarding her bus the student asked: “was he so different from Septimus? Wise and lost?”.

She then explained she gained a new and unexpected perspective on life:

[Woolf] gave me glasses I never knew I needed – lenses smeared with multiple fingerprints that enhanced rather than hindered the view.

She concluded that

to be a reader is to suspend rigid views, to consider and honour the perspectives of the characters one meets.

A third student reflected on the challenges of reading itself, and on the rewards of persisting when structure and characterisation are unfamiliar. The student said she set out wanting to be an “inspired reader” but confessed to feeling “frustrated” by Woolf’s “merciless indifference” to her characters in Mrs Dalloway.

In noting this frustration, the student had registered the novel’s lack of clear protagonist or plotline. The novel is difficult to read because, while we do see individual characters trying to interpret their lives as coherent stories, Woolf refuses to impose an artificial grand narrative.

After sticking with it, however, the student recognised the novel’s achievement:

There lies the beauty of it: the ordinary day captured in time and words as a novel.

This student’s bibliomemoir was a story of the dividends paid by sustained concentration and a flexible mindset.

One student wrote about how the ringing of Big Ben in Mrs Dalloway was similar to a phone alert.
Nick Fewings/Unsplash

A fourth student used the bibliomemoir to analyse how Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey showed her the value of observing people closely, and has equipped her with resilience as a student facing the challenge of dyslexia:

I could not work out how to do the exact things my teachers wanted me to do. What I could do was learn to understand my teachers. By learning to watch them, like Austen watched people, and learning to understand them as people, I began to understand how to jump through their hoops.

While she couldn’t quantify the competencies reading books had given her, the student said she just knew books had formed who she was:

I cannot list the strategies that I employ when reading and writing […] I give all the credit to reading literature, to books like Northanger Abbey and writers like Jane Austen and so volunteer myself as an example of how reading literature is valuable in our era.

These examples revealed some of the many reasons new readers, even of the digital age, return to old books and old ways of reading them. The readers expressed an urgency for connection with narratives more complex than a news feed.




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They recognised that truthful self-reflection can be prompted by sustained engagement with fiction. They proved that connection with others, compassion and resilience are nurtured through a deepened understanding of story in the study of literature.

I can only conclude that for this group of readers, taking a book into their hands is a very deliberate act of identification with the bigger, shared story of reading.The Conversation

Kate Flaherty, Senior Lecturer (English and Drama) ANU, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Are People Reading Less Books/Ebooks?


The link below is to an article that asks ‘why people aren’t reading books anymore?’ It also briefly comments on other survey findings, which seem largely irrelevant to the main question of the article.

For more visit:
https://goodereader.com/blog/e-book-news/why-arent-people-reading-books-anymore

‘Freshly cut grass – or bile-infused Exorcist vomit?’: how crime books embraced lurid green



University of Sydney Library

Carolyn McKay, University of Sydney

Green is a colour that evokes nature, fecundity, sustainability.

At the traffic lights it signals go; on a boat, starboard.

It’s a soft celadon glaze; an intense Van Eyck wedding dress; frothy, aromatic matcha tea; aurora borealis; a meditative praying mantis. It’s jungle camouflage, Joyce’s snotgreen sea, green mould and Martians.

If green had a smell, would it be freshly cut grass – or bile-infused Exorcist vomit?

Green, like all colours, has innumerable meanings and cultural associations. My interest in green stems from the books I curated in Lurid: Crime Paperbacks and Pulp Fiction.

My favourite books in Lurid are the green Penguin crime series from the 1960s. Penguin was founded by Allen Lane in 1935 and revolutionised publishing through a focus on well-designed, pocket-sized and affordable high-quality literature, as distinct from mere pulp.




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The covers were standardised yet stylish and instantly recognisable: two horizontal bands of colour separated by a central white band featuring the author’s name and title in Gill Sans font. Initially designed by Edward Young, the aesthetic was strengthened in 1947 by German typographer Jan Tschichold’s Penguin Composition Rules.

The cheerful Penguin logo, also designed by Young, was the only pictorial element on these early covers. In Jeremy Lewis’s Penguin Special, he writes Penguin eschewed the lurid picture jackets – “breastsellers” – adopted in the US in favour of English restraint and text-only designs.

The books were colour-coded by subject: the now classic orange for fiction, dark blue for biographies, red for drama. Of the first ten Penguin books published, two were crime and colour-coded green.

Since curating the Lurid exhibition, I’ve been wondering: why green? Why not blood-spatter red or noir black?

The affect of green

As a visual artist as well as a visual criminologist, I have a great interest in colour and its affective qualities.

The initial green used on Penguin crime covers was a slightly earthy green, not unlike terre verte. This is a soft green pigment traditionally used as a cool element when mixing flesh tones in a limited palette of flake white, yellow ochre, Venetian red and ivory black, depending on the subject’s skin tones.

Terre verte is often used as a grisaille or underpainting in figurative works and portraiture. But there are so many other irresistible greens in oil painting: cobalt, emerald, viridian, phthalo, cadmium, sap, olive, chromium.

The original earthen green hue of Penguin crime was brightened in the 1960s when Italian art director Germano Facetti challenged the traditional Penguin design rules and hired Polish graphic designer Romek Marber to revitalise the book covers.

The “Marber Grid” and pictorial covers placed the typography and Penguin logo in the top third of the cover and allowed two-thirds of the layout for striking modernist illustration and graphic design.

The covers of Dorothy L. Sayers’ Busman’s Honeymoon and Lord Peter Views the Body show the distinctive and recurrent white stick figure Marber applied only to her books.

The Busman’s Honeymoon, in particular, shows Marber at his best. The geometric design evokes a staircase with a corpse – the identifying device of the white cut-out – at the bottom.

Marber’s last Penguin crime cover design was for Ellery Queen’s The Scarlet Letters in 1965. With the letters X and Y that, in the novel, a dying man traces in his own blood, the design introduces trickles of red, photography and a solid black background.

Looking at these book covers today, there is power in the simplicity of these designs with their limited colour palette, elements of photomontage, collage, drawing and geometric pattern, and use of sans serif font.

And, of course, there is the bright green.

The Penguin crime series is not the only one to feature green. Launched by Collins in the 1930s, the White Circle Crime Club used a bold graphic design featuring two menacing figures and variations on a restricted palette of green, black and white.

This green branding was an intentional strategy to compete directly with the green Penguins.

Green to kill

Why green? Perhaps the answer lies in green’s association with toxicity.

The 18th century’s Scheele’s green, derived from arsenic, was vivid and alluring. The 19th century’s emerald green was highly desirable, and used extensively in clothing and wallpaper, including that of William Morris. Unfortunately, it was horribly poisonous: arsenic fumes from Emerald Green wallpaper killed.




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Green, then, is deadly. Green radioluminescent paint shone brightly on watches and caused radium poisoning; green chlorine gas was first used as a chemical weapon in the first world war.

The green of absinthe’s la fée verte, the green fairy, is intoxicating, once thought to be hallucinogenic, and an ingredient in Ernest Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon cocktail.

With these lethal associations the green of crime fiction starts to make sense.

Sometimes, you can judge a book by its cover.The Conversation

Carolyn McKay, Senior Lecturer – Criminal Law, Procedure, Digital Criminology, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Friday essay: a real life experiment illuminates the future of books and reading


Andy Simionato, RMIT University and Karen ann Donnachie, RMIT University

Books are always transforming. The book we hold today has arrived through a number of materials (clay, papyrus, parchment, paper, pixels) and forms (tablet, scroll, codex, kindle).

The book can be a tool for communication, reading, entertainment, or learning; an object and a status symbol.

The most recent shift, from print media to digital technology, began around the middle of the 20th century. It culminated in two of the most ambitious projects in the history of the book (at least if we believe the corporate hype): the mass-digitisation of books by Google and the mass-distribution of electronic books by Amazon.

The survival of bookshops and flourishing of libraries (in real life) defies predictions that the “end of the book” is near. But even the most militant bibliophile will acknowledge how digital technology has called the “idea” of the book into question, once again.

To explore the potential for human-machine collaboration in reading and writing, we built a machine that makes poetry from the pages of any printed book. Ultimately, this project attempts to imagine the future of the book itself.

A machine to read books

Our custom-coded reading-machine reads and interprets real book pages, to create a new “illuminated” book of poetry.

The reading-machine uses Computer Vision and Optical Character Recognition to identify the text on any open book placed under its dual cameras. It then uses Machine Learning and Natural Language Processing technology to “read” the text for meaning, in order to select a short poetic combination of words on the page which it saves by digitally erasing all other words on the page.

Armed with this generated verse, the reading-machine searches the internet for an image – often a doodle or meme, which someone has shared and which has been stored in Google Images – to illustrate the poem.

Once every page in the book has been read, interpreted, and illustrated, the system publishes the results using an online printing service. The resulting volume is then added to a growing archive we call The Library of Nonhuman Books.

From the moment our machine completes its reading until the delivery of the book, our automated-art-system proceeds algorithmically – from interpreting and illuminating the poems, to pagination, cover design and finally adding the endmatter. This is all done without human intervention. The algorithm can generate a seemingly infinite number of readings of any book.

The poetry

The following poems were produced by the reading-machine from popular texts:

deep down men try there

he’s large naked she’s even

while facing anything.

from E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey

how parties popcorn

jukebox bathrooms depressed

shrug, yeah? all.

from Bret Easton Ellis’ The Rules of Attraction

Oh and her bedroom

bathroom brushing sending it

garter too face hell.

from Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s

My algorithm, my muse

So what does all this have to do with the mass-digitisation of books?

Faced with growing resistance from authors and publishers concerned with Google’s management of copyright, the infoglomerate pivoted away from its primary goal of providing a free corpus of books (a kind of modern day Library of Alexandria) and towards a more modest index system used for searching inside the books Google had scanned. Google would now serve only short “snippets” of words highlighted on the original page.

Behind the scenes, Google had identified a different use for the texts. Millions of scanned books could be used in a field called Natural Language Processing. NLP allows computers to communicate with people using everyday language rather than code. The books originally scanned for humans were made available to machines for learning, and later imitating, human language.

Imagine infinite readings of the books we already have.
Unsplash, CC BY

Algorithmic processes like NLP and Machine Learning hold the promise (or threat) of deferring much of our everyday reading to machines. History has shown that once machines know how to do something, we generally leave them to it. The extent to which we do this will depend on how much we value reading.

If we continue to defer our reading (and writing) to machines, we might make literature with our artificially intelligent counterparts. What will poetry become, with an algorithm as our muse?

We already have clues to this: from the almost obligatory use of emojis or Japanese Kaomoji (顔文字) as visual shorthand for the emotional intent of our digital communication, to the layered meanings of internet memes, to the auto-generation of “fake news” stories. These are the image-word hybrids we find in post-literate social media.

To hide a leaf

Take the book, my friend, and read your eyes out, you will never find there what I find.

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Spiritual Laws

Emerson’s challenge highlights the subjectivity we bring to reading. When we started working on the reading-machine we focused on discovering patterns of words within larger bodies of texts that have always been there, but have remained “hidden in plain sight”. Every attempt by the reading-machine generated new poems, all of them made from words that remained in their original positions on the pages of books.

The notion of a single book consisting of infinite readings is not new. We originally conceived our reading-machine as a way of making a mythical Book of Sand, described by Jorge Luis Borges in his 1975 parable.

Borges’ story is about the narrator’s encounter with an endless book which continuously recombines its words and images. Many have compared this impossible book to the internet of today. Our reading-machine, with the turn of each page of any physical book, calculates combinations of words on that page which, until that moment, have been seen, but not consciously perceived by the reader.

The title of our early version of the work was To Hide a Leaf. It was generated by chance when a prototype of the reading-machine was presented with a page from a book of Borges’ stories. The complete sentence from which the words were taken is:

Somewhere I recalled reading that the best place to hide a leaf is in a forest.

The latent verse our machine attempts to reveal in books also hides in plain sight, like a leaf in a forest; and the idea is also a play on a page being generally referred to as a “leaf of a book”.

Like the Book of Sand, perhaps all books can be seen as combinatorial machines. We believed we could write an algorithm that could unlock new meanings in existing books, using only the text within that book as the key.

Philosopher Boris Groys described the result of the mass-digitisation of the book as Words Without Grammar, suggesting clouds of disconnected words.

Our reading-machine, and the Library of Nonhuman Books it is generating, is an attempt to imagine the book to come after these clouds of “words without grammar”. We have found the results are sometimes comical, often nonsensical, occasionally infuriating and, every now and then, even poetic.

Now that machines can read, will we defer the task to them?

The reading-machine will be on display at the Melbourne Art Book Fair in March and will collect a Tokyo Type Directors Club Award in April. Nonhuman Books are available via Atomic Activity Books.The Conversation

Andy Simionato, Lecturer, RMIT University and Karen ann Donnachie, Independent artist / Lecturer (adjunct), RMIT University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.