Long form reading: it was a fun game while it lasted

Long form reading: it was a fun game while it lasted

Humans love to make up rules for themselves that require them to act counterinstinctually.

No, really.

That’s what games are.

Did you ever play that the “floor was lava” when you were a kid? You had to get around the room while walking on the furniture (jumping from couch to chair), so you didn’t “burn up”?

If something scared you and you just took off running, you wouldn’t climb around on the furniture…you’d make a straight line across the floor.

We think it’s fun to make ourselves behave in ways that are hard, or unnatural.

In addition to managing a brick-and-mortar bookstore, I also managed a brick-and-mortar gamestore, so I’m pretty familiar with them.

We not only think it’s fun: we think it’s virtuous.

Think about sex (you know, if you weren’t already). 😉

There are all kinds of rules about what you can show to whom when.

You might counter that other animals (which you might define as not having intellects, but just reacting instinctually…I don’t, but you might) sometimes have elaborate mating rituals.

Yes, but ours vary from culture to culture, which shows that they aren’t ingrained.

What you could show in New York City one hundred years ago isn’t the same as what you can show now.

If you violate the rules, someone might insult you by calling you an “animal” (again, using it as shorthand for “unthinking”).

I’ve hired and trained a lot of trainers, and one of the things I look for is someone who is able to think about one thing while doing something else.

I have a pretty simple test for that.

I tell someone to stand up and tell me what in their lives brought them to this moment…without using the word “I”: go!

Most people are terrible at it…they may lock up completely, or be able to go for a few seconds before they make a mistake.

Someone who will be a good trainer makes it work right away, and could go for minutes. One thing they do is refer to themselves in the third person. Instead of saying, “I grew up in Chicago,” they say, “There was a person, me, who grew up in Chicago.”

In order to get a good assessment, you have to try this spontaneously (I used to be part of an improv  troupe), so you can’t prepare yourself.

As soon as that’s over, though, they go back to speaking normally.

My point is that people are able to make themselves do things which are unnatural, but that it takes effort. They’ll revert back to the natural behaviors, given a choice.

Unnatural things…you know, like walking on your hands…or reading a novel?

I would guess just about everyone reading this blog has had a reading session with one book which was at least an hour long.

Is that a natural thing to do?

I don’t think so.

If you were a hunter/gatherer, I’d have a hard time coming up with one thing you would be doing that would require your undivided attention for an hour.

Stalking an animal doesn’t take that long, usually…and you sure better be paying attention to other things while you do it!

Someone can sit with their “nose in a book” for an hour, paying the rest of the world no heed.

Or at least, they used to be able to do that.


Sydney Morning Herald article by Michael S. Rosenwald

looks a the scientific concern that we are losing the ability to read in a linear fashion for a long period of time.

This isn’t because the quick skimming reading we do on the internet is evolving us in a new direction.

I don’t think we ever really evolved in the old one.

Before Gutenberg (mid-1400s), books were rare objects…and arguably, largely in the hands of people who weren’t part of the breeding population.

Mass market paperback books, which made novels much more available, only go back to the 1930s…maybe four or five generations ago. That’s not enough time for evolution to have changed anything in our brains.

I think for a while,we have “played the game” of reading long form.

Just like playing Blind Man’s Bluff, though, when the game is over, we are going back to what feels more natural.

From the article (which I recommend):

“[Maryanne] Wolf, one of the world’s foremost experts on the study of reading, was startled last year to discover her brain was apparently adapting, too. After a day of scrolling through the internet and hundreds of emails, she sat down one evening to read Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game (at AmazonSmile).

“I’m not kidding: I couldn’t do it,” she said. “It was torture getting through the first page. I couldn’t force myself to slow down so that I wasn’t skimming, picking out key words, organising my eye movements to generate the most information at the highest speed. I was so disgusted with myself.”

Why disgusted?

As Wolf knows, the brain adapts. It’s really, really good at that. We also aren’t the only species that does it (in my opinion).

We recently got a second dog, after having gotten another one several months earlier.

The first dog is now behaving much better, taking on the role of “supervisor”.

I am quite convinced that the first dog is “proud” of sitting patiently, waiting for food…behaving in a counterinstinctual way.

If you process information on a website by your brain bouncing all over the screen, looking for significant words, its only natural that it would try to do the same thing with a book…making comprehension and retention perhaps more difficult.

My guess is that the website version, which would be like scanning a jungle looking for prey or a predator in  a tree, is much more normal.

If we don’t have to do long form, linear reading will we lose the ability to do it?

Quite possibly: I believe it is a learned skill, not inherent.

What do you think? Is reading the same book for an hour harder now than it used to be for you? Have you noticed any change in kids (especially if you are a teacher)? Would losing that ability be such a bad thing? Should e-books perhaps adapt, maybe having pictures appear and disappear on pages? Is it because it is such a hard thing to do that people want no interruptions when they are “trying to read”? Feel free to tell me and my readers what you think by commenting on this post.

* I am linking to the same thing at the regular Amazon site, and at AmazonSmile. When you shop at AmazonSmile, half a percent of your purchase price on eligible items goes to a non-profit you choose. It will feel just like shopping at Amazon: you’ll be using your same account. The one thing for you that is different is that you pick a non-profit the first time you go (which you can change whenever you want)…and the good feeling you’ll get. :) Shop ’til you help! :) 

** Does Amazon pay royalties when one of their employees sings Happy Birthday over Mayday? Is that a commercial use…or, collectively, a public performance? I don’t know that they should, I just think it’s a possibility

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog. To support this or other blogs/organizations, buy  Amazon Gift Cards from a link on the site, then use those to buy your items. There will be no cost to you, and a benefit to them.



6 Responses to “Long form reading: it was a fun game while it lasted”

  1. Lady Galaxy Says:

    Just random thoughts here. Reading for longer than a hour is harder due more to the changes in aging eyes than anything else. Vision that quickly adapts from close to far in youth gradually finds the transition harder and harder, so if I read for too long, my eyes get blurry! In my case made worse by an underlying autoimmune disorder.

    I have noticed that I find it more difficult to watch movies on DVD. My attention drifts away and I find myself getting restless and wandering off. Sometimes I remember to hit pause, but other times I just wander off and don’t find my way back. Perhaps this comes from watching too much network TV which requires us to focus on an act which is then interrupted by anywhere from 3 – 5 minutes for commercials. I use the time to get up and do a few short chores or just walk around the house until the show starts up again.

    As a teacher, I noticed that children who had trouble focusing on the printed word for any length of time had little problem staying glued to a computer game for what seemed like forever.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Lady!

      Interesting stuff!

      Children being able to focus on a rapidly changing, screen-scanning videogame and not on static text would fit perfectly into what is discussed in the article. It wouldn’t be an attention span issue, it would be the linear nature of text that would be the problem.

      • Lady Galaxy Says:

        I need to read the whole article because I’m not exactly sure what they mean by “linear” reading. I rarely read in a linear manner. It’s a rare book that I read straight through. I will read to a certain point where I think I know how it’s going to end, and then I just have to go to the end and see if I’m right. Whether I’m right or wrong, if it’s a book I’m enjoying, I’ll go back and read the rest of the book. Sometimes I will do it backwards by chapters. Other times I’ll go back to the point where I jumped and read through for awhile. I generally read the ending several times before I finally get all the way through the book. If I really hate the ending or if I’m not particularly enjoying the book, I may not finish it.

        Because of my odd style of reading, I get very frustrated by Kindle books that do not contain a clickable table of contents or that do not allow you to use the 5 way controller to skip back and forth among chapters.

      • Bufo Calvin Says:

        Thanks for writing, Lady!

        Interesting, and definitely different from me! I know you’ve mentioned something about that before. I don’t even look at the next page of a page a day calendar until the right day shows up. 🙂 I don’t flip ahead in wall calendars I get as gifts: if the back of the calendar has thumbnails of all the months, I steadfastly don’t look at them. 🙂

        I suspect we are at opposite ends of a scale…

  2. Tom Semple Says:

    The latest episode Critical Margins podcast (criticalmargins.com) has a very good discussion of this article.

    I am always skeptical about these ‘the internet rots your brain’ articles. It is really easy to throw together some choice quotes and leap to conclusions. Was it ever easy to read Henry James? I doubt it.

    Reading is one of the more difficult things our brains do, and there are at least several types of reading, each of which requires specific skills and context that is not transferrable to other types of reading.

    Neuroscience has barely scratched the surface of how reading works (or doesn’t). I think we’re still several years away from having conclusions that have practical significance.

    Moreover I think we’re still in the early stages of digital reading. It’s quite premature to write it off as some step backwards, much less conclude it is corrosive to reading skills. Most reading systems are quite frankly not very good, and many people don’t discover how to use them effectively. So it is not surprising to find that there are problems with ‘screen reading’.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Tom!

      I agree!

      One of the weird things for me about the idea that change is “ruining” something is the suggestion that that thing was mature and unchanging initially…typically with a suggestion that it had existed that way since the dawn of time. 😉

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