:::: MENU ::::

How do we read? From Svennson to Hayles

image of a girl reading a book and a hand holding a kindle

[Source: flickr.com and pexels.com]

Reading Patrik Svennson’s ‘Envisioning the Digital Humanities’,¹ I found his article slow to read and heavy, but exciting in the end. His thoughts on collaboration, interdisciplinary work, the uniqueness of the situation that Humanities now finds itself in, with evolving digital technology. His discussion on the academic side, of its recognition by universities, the current graduate system, and also funding initiatives, seem to be the major fence, digital humanities must climb.

What I found most interesting is the uncertainty of Digital Humanities. Is it human or technologically pushed? In the future, will it be sponsored by philanthropy or by corporate businesses? Can it expand, to

“a well-designed and conceptually grounded space, whether mainly physical, digital or necessarily mixed, can help bring people together, instantiate technology, be clearly invitational, support collaborative and processional work practices, and allow ongoing, cross-sectional, and profound dialogue”?

Following on from this we were asked to think about how we ourselves read now, has anything changed because of technology?

Personally, I am still a fan of the physical book, and the written word. I grew up in a house full of books, on a wide variety of subjects. There may have been strict censorship when it came to television and films, etc, but free rein was given to books. There was no censorship in print, which led me to devouring a huge range of books as a teenager from the classics from Hemingway, Greene, Steinbeck, to slightly dodgy Lolita by Nabokov, and well dodgy Bataille’s Story of the Eye. I moved to Science fiction and fantasy in my late teens and early twenties, eating up writers from Tolkein to Bradbury. Still to this day, I hate travelling without a book. However the decline of the pocket sized novella, means books are not as transportable as they used to be. It seems as if its obligatory now, to make a book as large and detailed as possible. Could this be a defence mechanism against the digital e-reader. Bring back the cheap pocketbook novella, I say.

Reading, for me involves giving over hours at a time maybe nights (all night!) if the book is good. An old flat-mate of mine, who was dyslectic, and had never read a novel, could never understand, how I could come home from work on a Friday evening, and disappear for the whole weekend into my bedroom. Only appearing for refreshments and toilet breaks. She has since started to read, and now understands that ‘up-put-downable’ experience. In fact, she has moved on from me and gone digital, with an Amazon e-reader.

I have tried to embrace digital reading, but nothing beats a real book. The feel, the smell, being able to read in the bath. The panic when you lose your page, and the relief when you find it again. When in art college, years back, we had to pick a museum gallery, to spend a week in drawing, and studying. Naturally, I picked the Chester Beatty Library, which is still my favourite museum. There is something about parchment, the ink, the physical act of writing. As a teenager, I dabbled in calligraphy, and so the mere act of writing, to me is an artform. Whether it be early Christian or Islamic texts, Egyptian papyrus, words and letters have always fascinated me. Legible, or illegible, the simple act of writing can be a form of meditation. I still make written lists, have several notebooks, as however much it is handy to have everything on one device, I never flick back through a digital diary, where as I might with a physical one, as it would contain thoughts and doodles as well as events.

The only aspect that has changed for me is sourcing my books. I still get my novels from the library and second-hand shops, but any practical, academic or art books, I tend to order online. When I lived in Dublin, I used to have a monthly outing to all the second-hand books shops, and would be able to pick up gems, but living here in rural Ireland, my access isn’t so easy.

For this course, Most of our reading material is online, either free to read in an online journal or though the UCC library. However, I have found myself squirrelling away some titles on an Amazon wish list, because I feel I would definitely get more out of it, if I had it on my hand in book form.

Luckily, my son has developed a love of books too, and we can often be found, on a miserable evening, curled up in bed, both of reading our own books, or reading to each other. His reading skills are excellent, because of his interest in stories and storytelling. Also, that independent streak and wanting to know everything, helps. I don’t know if its a form of bookish snobbery, but if I visit a home that has no books, regardless of the type, I feel slightly uneasy. I don’t know why. Especially when I visit a home with children, and no books. Children are just being handed phones, and ipads, tablets, etc. When I see apps being advertised, to help your children to learn to read, I get angry. When these children get to school, it is suddenly the teachers fault that they are behind in their reading, and writing. Yes, schools can be slightly behind the digital times, but the pressure and trend on teachers now to become the sole guidance to children is terrible. Maybe its because I didn’t like my time in school, I wouldn’t leave my sons education in the sole hands of a school, I want him to believe there are options, and possibilities beyond those brick walls and heavy handed result papers.

image of a girl holding a book and a hand holding a kingle with the words close reading versus hyper reading

This connects me to the next article N. Katherine Hayles ‘How We Read: Close, Hyper, Machine’²

Hayles discusses several research projects that tried to take account of the difference between close reading and screen reading. “Essentially, close reading means reading to uncover layers of meaning that lead to deep comprehension.”³

Close reading isn’t an action, it is a skill, which needs practice. Its probably believed that close reading begins in school, or secondary school, where texts are read more closely and questions about the text are the norm. However, anyone who has ever read to a toddler will know, although the text isn’t as scholarly, that a toddler naturally close reads. There may be only one line per page of the book e.g. The second pig built his house of wood. You will know that a simple sentence is never enough. A young child is naturally inquisitive, “Why did he build his own house?…Where is the first pig?…Why don’t they live together…”, etc, etc. When trying to read a bedtime story, this is excruciating, but little do we realise at the time, we should be encouraging it, as the beginnings of close reading.

In this digital age,, are our children, as digital natives, growing up with shortened attention spans, so used to screen reading that they find it hard to read text in a book? Would it be the short attention span, or just simply unused to a printed book when they enter school. Hanna Rosin discusses this in her article ‘The Touch Screen Generation’, and interestingly it seems that the emphasis should be on interaction, regardless of what is being read: book, comic, or screen. Children seek out and learn through  “socially relevant information.”

They tune in to people and situations that help them make a coherent narrative of the world around them. In the real world, fresh grass smells and popcorn tumbles and grown-ups smile at you or say something back when you ask them a question.4

If a child is just left to his/her own devices, using technology passively, then can cause problems. However, if used in a social way, a child can benefit from using digital mediums.

image of html hyperlinkIn Hayles article, the similarity between reading of printed word and reading words on a screen are not the same. Close reading is what you do when you get engrossed in a book. Hyper reading, or screen reading is what you do when you’re websurfing.

Hyper reading correlates…with hyper attention, a low threshold for boredom, alternates flexibly between different information streams, and prefers a high level of stimulation. Close reading, by contrast, correlates with deep attention, the cognitive mode traditionally associated with the humanities that prefers a single information stream, focuses on a single cultural object for a relatively long time, and has a high tolerance for boredom.


She quotes Nicholas Carr ‘What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains’ “...he worries, however, that hyper-reading leads to changes in brain function that make sustained concentration more difficult, leaving us in a constant state of distraction in which no problem can be explored for very long before our need for continuous stimulation kicks in and we check e-mail, scan blogs, message someone, or check our RSS feeds…”

People read online in an F shape, which web designers cater for (therefore putting the least relevant information in the bottom right corner). We scan, and see hyperlinks, hence the term hyper-reading. I found very interesting in Hayles article, that hyperlinks, far from being useful they

”hyperlinks…draw attention away from the linear now of an article, very short forms such as tweets that encourage distracted forms of reading, small habitual actions such as clicking and navigating that increase the cognitive load, and, most pervasively, the enormous amount of material to be read, leading to the desire to skim everything because there’s way too much material to pay close attention to anything for very long…hyperlinks tend to degrade comprehension rather than enhance it

Even writing a post such as this, I would be more tempted to include hyperlinks to articles, then create a bibliography, for further reading. Hyperlinks are easy, and seem to be the polite thing to do, when you use someone else’s words, research, images, etc, its seen as against the ethics of Creative Commons to not hyperlink. One of the conclusions Hayles mentions, part of Carr’s research is that “increased demands of decision-making and visual processing in hypertext impaired reading performance,”especially in relation to “traditional print presentation” (qtd. in Carr 129)

This is definitely making me think twice about adding in hyperlinks, or at least adding too many to articles. I dabble in web design, having recently completed a website/blog for an artist who had a touring exhibition. When any venue, grant, sponsorship, etc, was mentioned, I naturally linked it. Maybe perhaps, I should add links in at the bottom of the articles, because they are detracting from the artists work.

Hayles response to the idea of there being incoherency between close reading and hyper-reading is not derisive, but encouraging. 70

” The problem lies not in hyper-attention/hyper reading as such, but rather in the challenges the situation presents for parents and educators to ensure that deep attention and close reading continue to be vibrant components of our reading cultures and interact synergistically with the kind of Web and hyper-reading in which our young people are increasingly immersed.”

She mentions the conclusion of Maryanne Wolfe ‘Proust and the Squid’, “We must teach our children to be bitextual or multitextual, able to read and analyse texts flexibly in different ways, with more deliberate instruction at every stage of development on the inferential, demanding aspects of any text. teaching children to uncover the invisible world that resides in written words needs to be both explicit and part of a dialogue between learner and teacher, if we are to promote the processes that lead to fully formed expert reading in our citizenry.”

Nancy Boyle suggests a slow progress, using technology and verbal skills to teach students, from a young age, to ask questions, to dig for deeper meaning, regardless of the medium used “…Paraphrasing is pretty low on Bloom’s continuum of lower- to higher-order thinking, yet many students stumble even here. This is the first stop along the journey to close reading. If students can’t paraphrase the basic content of a passage, how can they dig for its deeper meaning? The second basic question about hard or important words encourages students to zoom in on precise meaning. Students who learn to ask themselves such questions are reading with the discerning eye of a careful reader. We can also teach students to read carefully with the eye of a writer, which means helping them analyse craft”…

There was much more in Hayles article to digest, I find her work fascinating, but also positive. Instead of dismissing students use of digital reading tools , she calls for more integration

“…here is a suggestion: literary studies teaches literacies across a range of media forms, including print and digital, and focuses on interpretation and analysis of patterns, meaning, and context through close, hyper-, and machine reading practices. Reading has always been constituted through complex and diverse practices. Now it is time to rethink what reading is and how it works in the rich mixtures of words and images, sounds and animations, graphics and letters that constitute the environments of twenty-first-century literacies…”

There is much further reading to be done on this topic, close or hyper! I am very interested in the learning process, and combining subjects, such as maths and crafts, science and art. I am currently doing research into the maker culture, which encourages all kinds of media. Reading Hayles is encouraging, especially for parents who are standing on the edge of unknown territory. There is not enough research done on the effects of technology on, not just young children, but students, readers and more,  the results seen inconclusive. The key factor here is interactivity and comprehension, regardless of what kind of reading you do, on whatever kind of format you choose. I for one, will be sticking with books. Not just because I prefer a physical book, but because over time, the publishing industry has finally gained eco credit. Most books are now printed on paper from sustainable forests, are easily recycled, or passed on. Can we say the same for the digital industry? that’s another topic for another day, however.


¹ Svennson Patrik | ‘Envisioning the Digital Humanities’ | Digital Humanities Quarterly 6.1 | 2012 | Online

² Hayles, N. Katherine | How We Read: Close, Hyper, Machine’ | ADE Bulletin 150 | MLA |America | 2011

³ Boyles, Nancy | Closing in on Close Reading | Common Core: Now What? | December 2012/January 2013 | Volume 70 | Number 4

4 Rosin, Hannah | The Touch Screen Generation | The Atlantic Magazine (online) | April 2013


End Note:

When I was copy and pasting quotes from Hayles article, this is how they copied. I don’t know why, but I love it. Its like the computer is telling me I can’t just screen read, I must close read, and so figure out, what letters are missing and replace them. To me this text is beautiful, just as it is.

h♦r♦ is a

sugg♦stion: lit♦rary studi♦s t♦ac♦s lit♦racivs across a rang♦ oΟ m♦dia Οorms, including print and digital, and Οocus♦s on int♦rpr♦tation and analysis oΟ patt♦rns, m♦aning, and cont♦xt

troug clos♦, yp♦r-, and macin♦ r♦ading practic♦s. R♦ading as always b♦♦n consti-tut♦d troug compl♦x and div♦rs♦ practic♦s. Now it is tim♦ to r♦tink wat r♦ading isand ow it works in tΟ ric mixtur♦s oΟwords and imag♦s, sounds and animations, grapics and l♦tt♦rs tat constitut♦ t♦ ♦nvironm♦nts oΟtw♦nty-Οrst-c♦ntury litraci♦s

So, what do you think ?