Reading

Despite the fact that I have neglected to keep up with the books section of my website, I am an avid reader. At any given time, I usually have at least two or three books going. Currently I am reading “House Made of Dawn” by M. Scott Momaday. I’ve decided that now that I have time, I’m going to read through the Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction of my adult life. And I also have been reading Amy-Jill Levine’s “Entering the Passion of Jesus” for an adult discussion group in which I am participating. Most weeks at our house include a trip to the library and despite downsizing and getting rid of hundreds of books in preparation for our move, we still have some very full bookcases that I visit frequently to re-read books that are favorites. There is no limit to the number of times one can read “Go Dog Go,” or enjoy a collection of Calvin and Hobbes cartoons. There are many books that reveal more depth and meaning upon re-reading.

Given my love of books and reading, I have developed a theory about reading. This theory is not based on science, though I’ve read a few articles by scientists and researchers. And the theory is probably not unique to me. It’s just something that I’ve been thinking about lately. The theory is that most people absorb information in different ways and to different degrees dependent upon the context and the media they use for reading.

I began my college career on academic probation. Knowing that my ability to continue to study was dependent upon earning good grades meant that I was highly motivated to do well. I soon discovered that my old practice of reading in bed wasn’t producing the comprehension required. Besides the volume of reading in college was too high for me to keep dropping off to sleep mid sentence. I found that I got the most out of a book if I was sitting at my desk or at a table in the library with a notepad and a pen close at hand. I also learned that certain foods, most notably the hot chocolate available at the student food service, tended to make me sleepy. I started drinking coffee during my first year in college.

These days I read mostly for recreation. You can often find me sitting in a recliner in the living room reading a book. However, I know that if there is something that I really need to understand, or if I am reading material that is challenging, I do better sitting at my desk or at our dining room table. My comprehension is best when I am reading a book while sitting at a table or desk.

Furthermore, I retain information best when I am reading from a paper book. There is something about the physical task of turning a page that holds my attention in a way that scrolling through a digital document does not. It is almost as if flipping through pages on the tablet computer is too easy for me. My tablet computer also allows my mind to wander in ways that a paper book does not. I can mark a passage by holding my finger over a word. I can look up something in the online dictionary, view other books by the same author, and wander away from the text in a thousand different directions when I have my computer in my hands. Just like I type faster using my computer than I can write with a pen and paper, I read more quickly with a computer than with a book. That can be good if you are going for volume, but it does decrease comprehension for me.

Audio books are not my cup of tea. Actually, I’m likely to get up and make a cup a tea while I am listening to an audio book. I’ll also file papers, trim my fingernails, sweep the floor and do dishes while an audio book is playing. I used to listen to audio books when I was driving, but I found out that the book distracted me from my driving and my driving distracted me from the book. There are still a lot of places where I might consider an audio book, but it is not helpful for me for something that I really want to be able to discuss intelligently later.

Those are personal observations, but based on my observations of myself, I think that there may be an educational cost to the trend of high school and college teachers assigning reading from books that are available only in a digital format. I understand that digital book have helped keep down the price of publishing textbooks, but I suspect that there is a hidden cost in decreased information sharing.

There are people for whom audio books are a blessing and a necessary learning tool. Perhaps most obvious are those who are blind. Reading a book in braille is even more physical than reading a paper book. Braille books tend to be thicker, heavier and they require for each letter to be felt and discerned individually. Being able to listen to a book allows a blind person to access more books. There are theories that those who cannot see hone their listening skills and are able to absorb more information through hearing than those of us who can see. Audio books are a definite aid in learning for those with other disabilities as well.

Digital books where the color and size of the text can be easily changed are a great learning tool for persons with certain learning challenges as well.

I suppose that elders have always feared that the current generation of children aren’t getting the education they need, but the combination of pandemic isolation and the shift to digital reading don’t seem to me to be good trends for optimal learning for today’s children. The problem with educational deficiencies, however, is that they take years to be recognized. The true cost of suspended schools will not be known for years - perhaps even for decades.

I’m grateful for digital reading. After all I publish digitally every day. But I don’t think that we will see the end of paper books in my lifetime and, I hope, for many generations afterward.