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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Love, laughter, adventure and fantasy: a summer reading list for teens


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.




Read more:
5 Australian books that can help young people understand their place in the world


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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If you can read this headline, you can read a novel. Here’s how to ignore your phone and just do it


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.

Falling Asleep While Reading


The link below is to an article that looks at falling asleep while reading – certainly an issue for me.

For more visit:
https://bookriot.com/2020/02/14/why-do-i-fall-asleep-when-i-read/

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

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.

If you can read this headline, you can read a novel. Here’s how to ignore your phone and just do it



Fewer people are reading novels for pleasure than in the past.
from shutterstock.com

Judith Seaboyer, The University of Queensland

Public anxiety about the capacity of digital-age children and young adults to read anything longer than a screen grab has come to feel like moral panic. But there is plenty of evidence to suggest we must take such unease seriously.

In 2016, the US National Endowment for the Arts reported the proportion of American adults who read at least one novel in 2015 had dropped to 43.1% from 56.9% in 1982.

In 2018, a US academic reported that in 1980, 60% of 18-year-old school students read a book, newspaper or magazine every day that wasn’t assigned for school. By 2016, the number had plummeted to 16%.

Those same 12th graders reported spending “six hours a day texting, on social media and online”.




Read more:
Why it matters that teens are reading less


American literacy expert and neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf describes the threat screen reading poses to our capacity for “the slower cognitive processes such as critical thinking, personal reflection, imagination, and empathy that are all part of deep reading”.

She asks:

Will the mix of continuously stimulating distractions of children’s attention and immediate access to multiple sources of information give young readers less incentive either to build their own storehouses of knowledge or to think critically for themselves?

But rather than taking up defensive positions on either side of the digital-analogue reading divide, Wolf encourages us to embrace both. As parents and teachers we can help our children develop a bi-literate reading brain. There are several ways we can do this.

Reading pathways

Reading is a learned skill that requires the development of particular neural networks. And different reading platforms encourage the development of different aspects of those networks.

Screen-reading children, immersed from toddlerhood in the pleasures and instant gratification of skimming, clicking and linking, develop cognitive skills that make them adept power browsers, good at the useful ability to scan for information and analyse data.




Read more:
Three easy ways to get your kids to read better and enjoy it


But Wolf suggests this kind of reading “can short-circuit the development of the slower, more cognitively demanding comprehension processes that go into the formation of deep reading and deep thinking.”

Unless the cognitive skills required for deep reading are similarly developed and nurtured, new generations of readers – distracted by the ready availability of digital information – may not learn to venture beyond the shallows of the reading experience.

We can help children gain a love of reading on paper from an early age.
from shutterstock.com

Along with others concerned with early childhood education Wolf advises encouraging paper literacy from infancy. She doesn’t recommend forbidding devices. Instead we should regularly turn them off and make the time and space to read books on paper with children.

We can model our own reading practices by setting aside our own smart phones to lose ourselves in a book.




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Love, laughter, adventure and fantasy: a summer reading list for teens


But how can secondary and tertiary teachers help inexperienced readers? The problem is likely to be aliteracy, meaning students can read but they choose not to because they don’t see it to be important for learning. And because they haven’t read much, it’s hard work. The problem can seem intractable. But it can be done.

Turn off the phone and read

My first venture into helping tertiary students read better was a 2011-2013 cross-university government-funded project that set out to foster what we termed “reading resilience”. We found if students were persuaded to prioritise reading as they did a test or an essay, they would invest the time to get into the zone that is the other world of the text.

We complemented complex texts with a guide that encouraged students to think critically as they read and to keep going when the language seemed impenetrable, the narrative incomprehensible (or dull) and the length endless. Or when the siren call of the smart phone became irresistible.

They experimented with switching off their devices for blocks of two hours while they simply read. And they did read.

Students prioritised this difficult work because we rewarded pre-class reading with marks. Some classes uploaded one-page, carefully argued responses; others answered complex feedback-rich quizzes.

Can you ignore your phone for two hours and keep reading?
from shutterstock.com

I surveyed a large first-year introduction to literary studies at the University of Queensland in 2013 before testing a version of the same “reading resilience” course in 2014. The rise in reading rates was exponential.

The number of students who completed all ten primary texts (including the poem Beowulf and Toni Morrison’s Beloved) more than tripled, and the number who completed the ten accompanying secondary texts (selected chapters from an introduction to literary theory and criticism) went up by more than six times.

Reported student satisfaction for this course from 2008 to 2012 had ranged between 64% and 75%. Once reading resilience was introduced, many complained about the reading load yet the level of overall satisfaction jumped to 86%.

We can all do it

It’s not just readers raised in a digital-age who have difficulty with long-form text. Have you have lost the skill of deep reading? Are you finding it increasingly difficult to stay with, say, a literary novel? You are not alone.

Wolf, who despite having two degrees in literature, confesses to the shocking discovery that recently she found herself struggling to stick with a beloved Herman Hesse novel.




Read more:
5 Australian books that can help young people understand their place in the world


We too can switch off our devices and set aside a space and time to revitalise the neural pathways that once made us immersive readers.

As Wolf argues, the skills of “deep reading” that involve “slower, more time-consuming cognitive processes […] are vital for contemplative life”. Deep readers are likely to be more thoughtful members of the community at a time when good citizenship may never have been more important.The Conversation

Judith Seaboyer, Senior Lecturer, The University of Queensland

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