#FLdigireading: Reading literature in the digital age

Reading literature in the digital age from the University of Basel, on FutureLearn, ran from 28 March for six weeks. Led by Philipp Schweighauser, Head of American and General Literatures.

How do we read literary texts today? Learn new ways of interpreting texts, from time-tested methods to computer-assisted practices such as distant reading.

In the course you will:

  • learn how to interpret a work of literature without using any contextual information
  • reflect on the costs and benefits of online reading
  • encounter a method for reading thousands of literary texts with the help of computer algorithms
  • think hard about the feel and smell of books

How we read today: different media

Offline and online, print book and ebook…reading always implies the use of a specific medium of reading, and  the technological possibilities of the medium fundamentally shape our reading experience with far-reaching cognitive and social effects.

Reading habits have changed substantially over the last three decades. A National Literary Trust 2013 survey found that today’s young people “are now much more likely to prefer to read on a computer screen rather than a printed book or magazine”, while a 2015 survey found significant gender and ethnic divides between online and offline readers: “girls continue to outpace boys in their enthusiasm for reading outside school at all age levels, with black girls in particular showing a prodigious appetite for literature”.

How do the new forms of reading impact the cognitive processing of the texts we read? When we read texts online or as ebooks, do we get as deep an understanding of them and remember as much of them as we do when we read a print book? See Anne Mangan’s 2014 study, which suggested that ebook reading impacts our cognitive processing negatively.

See posts on ebooks and digital literature, reading long form and reading the Berlin ebooks.

In our learning community, ebook readers and print books seem to be the favorite reading media. A sizeable minority has abandoned reading print books altogether, be it for reasons of space, mobility, or money. A majority treasures print books for their sensuous and aesthetic qualities, valuing their look, touch, and smell…reading literary texts in different media means reading literary texts differently. We could even say that it means reading a different literary text.

How we read today: new strategies

See post on different ways of reading.

Lay reading techniques, products of and responses to the digital age. What do you do when you read texts online?

  • hyper reading – unlike ‘linear’ reading takes us into multiple directions which cannot be foreseen at the beginning of the reading process
  • social reading – a collaborative form of online reading that incorporates discussion into the reading process and turns it into a communal experience; see post on tweeting about reading

Professional reading techniques:

  • close reading – deliberately ignores all historical, social, political, and biographical contexts to focus on the text itself, zooming in on the words on the page and teasing out all the subtleties of the literary forms, and devices, and structures that make up a text; as practised on #FLHouseLit; see Sarah Dillon on R4’s Open Book (also connection with digital reading techniques in its forensic intensity, perhaps)
  • historical contextualization – placing texts in their literary-historical context – part of which is the literary-geographical context – see stedssans category and page, #FLwordsworth and #FLfairytales
  • distant reading – Moretti; surveys, analyses, and describes even thousands of literary texts to identify general patterns and large scale historical developments across centuries and national borders, drawing on the methods of the natural and the social sciences; some of the most interesting outputs are not interpretations but visualisations (graphs, maps, trees); relationship with text analysis
  • surface reading – also not interested in interpreting literary texts, but focuses on a variety of things inc the materiality of books: some interesting stuff here; relationship with experimental writing

Close reading is one of the most widespread scholarly methods in literary criticism and constitutes an indispensable tool, the bread and butter, for professional readers. Formalist, ahistorical, too strenuous, too reductive, relevant to scholars only, not well suited to the digital age with its information overload, or a useful tool for interpreting literary and other texts?

Developed from a 1920s experiment by English literary critic IA Richards, but today more closely associated with the (American) New Critics, who dominated literary scholarship in the 1950s and 1960s. Poems that bear out such a close examination are characterised by multilayered relations between words, sounds, and meanings, with ambiguities, paradoxes, ironies, and tensions contained within the organic unity of the text. Literary texts don’t need to serve any psychological or social function, to educate us or strive to make the world a better place – instead, they carry their value in themselves.

My classic 1980s degree in German was studied almost exclusively through close reading, although no one ever called it that. A module on the literature of the Weimar Republic, employing historical contextualisation techniques, was considered rather risqué and not quite proper.

Hyper reading is the type of reading you perform when you look anything up on the web, eg skimming webpages, following hyperlinks, downloading files, cutting and pasting text you find useful. See James Sosnoski’s 1999 essay, Hyper-readers and their reading engines, classing hyper reading as screen-based, computer-assisted reading practices. Hyper reading takes place online and is a non-linear form of reading, where hyperlinks can take us into any kind of direction, instead of proceeding smoothly from page one to page two, and so on. (Hmm not convinced this only takes place online.)

Sosnoski’s eight hyper reading strategies:

  • filtering – selecting what texts or what parts of the text you read; with the help of search engines we filter the countless pages that make up the web and select but one or a few
  • skimming – locating the parts of a text you find most interesting, eg via a table of contents
  • pecking – a less structured and more random activity; randomly reading a bit here and a bit there, without respecting a text’s internal structure or coherence
  • imposing –  we attribute less coherence, unity and authority to hypertexts than eg a poem or a novel; we impose our interest on the text and use it for our ends, imposing our own specific significance on it
  • filming – privileging visual materials over texts; hyper readers film hypertexts
  • trespassing – ‘textual burglars’ raid hyper-texts and cut and paste whatever they find interesting; the danger is plagiarism and related
  • de-authorizing – authorship on the web is often difficult to determine; hyper readers don’t really care who authored a website and tend to treat them as if they were completely in the public domain; any link a website has to another website is an act of de-authorizing that website by putting it to one’s own uses
  • fragmenting – breaking texts into smaller units, relevant to purpose, thus fragmenting the text

Two more from Katherine Hayles’ How we think: digital media and contemporary technogenesis (2012):

  • juxtaposing – opening two windows, placing them side by side to eg cut and paste text; reading across two or more texts
  • scanning – rapidly reading through a website to identify interesting parts

Which of these go beyond stating the obvious? But still useful for typology lovers.

How does constant exposure to hyper reading affect us and what we can do about these changes?  Benefits and risks:

  • several studies show that people read less print, and they read print less well (Hayles)
  • other studies find that people, including digital natives, are reading more novels again – how to convert the increased digital reading into increased reading ability, and how to make effective bridges between digital reading and the literacy traditionally associated with print’ (Hayles)?
  • Sven Birkerts in The Gutenberg Elegies (1994) warns against the disappearance of ‘deep reading’, the experiential equivalent of close reading, the cognitive and emotional effects that solitary, close, concentrated reading has on readers
  • much more of this from Nicholas Carr and The shallows: what the Internet is doing to our brains (2010; article); continual on-screen reading changes the neuronal structures of readers’ brains

Can online social reading sites turn reading into a whole new communal experience? “Social reading is a form of collaborative reading that takes place online, incorporating discussion into the reading process and thus turning it into a community experience”. Hmm…depends v much on the ‘community’ – not ideal for the anti-social.

See Glose, SocialBook (and the Open Utopia pilot project), The Golden Notebook Project (2008), book clubs…and Bob Stein’s (founder of the Institute for the Future of the Book) essay A taxonomy of social reading: a proposal.

  1. Does the collaborative practice of social reading truly enhance our understanding of literary texts?
  2. Does social reading allow for a free exchange of equals?
  3. Will social reading ever replace solitary reading?

How can historical contextualization help us understand a literary work? Investigating the historical contexts of a literary text is one way to make sense of it. The literary-historical contexts of a work include, among others, the institutional aspects of its publication, its relation to the dynamics of various literary and artistic movements, and the connection of its author to other authors.

New Historicism has been a leading theoretical school in the humanities over the last three decades. New Historicists such as Stephen Greenblatt and Jane Tompkins developed a new historical approach to literature and culture.

New Historicists no longer believe that any historical era is dominated by one worldview shared by all – any era is shaped by competing worldviews and ideologies. History is neither progressive nor teleological. The world is not continually improving, for if that were the case, something like the Holocaust could have never happened. Likewise, history does not move toward a telos, an end or a goal. A teleological view of history would for instance argue that eventually, all the world will resemble Western liberal democracies, while New Historicists propose that history is much rather shaped by competing forces and changing power relations.

Historians’ desire to fully know and understand the past is illusory. The past is the past and as such, never directly accessible to us. Louis Montrose: the historicity of texts and the textuality of history. When we read literary texts we need to take into consideration that they were written and read at a specific moment in history, at a specific time and place whose social and cultural configurations were different from our own. The texts that historians and literary scholars write are also shaped by their time and place.

The textuality of history means that the past is the past and as such, never directly accessible to us. In most cases, the past comes to us in the form of surviving texts. Those texts that historians call sources. The texts from the past that historians call sources always already interpret the past, provide a certain perspective on the past that needs to be interpreted by us. New Historicists also note that the texts from the past that we actually have access to today are only a minute fraction of the texts that were actually produced and only give us certain perspectives on the past.

Perhaps the most important notion of New Historicism is cultural work (Jane Tompkins), going against the idea that literary texts simply mirror or reflect the world. For New Historicists literary texts are an integral part of the world in which they are read. They negotiate, comment on, and intervene in social and political debates of the time. Hence historical contextualisation is also good at providing opportunities to deal with questions which are related to literature only indirectly but which nonetheless strongly influence our perception of it.

Distant reading is a quintessentially digital method of analysing literature, relying on computer programmes. In many ways it is not reading at all – or at least not in the traditional sense of the word. Moretti: “We know how to read texts. Now let’s learn how not to read them.”

Computer programmes, with the help of methods borrowed from the social sciences and natural sciences, are breaking new ground in dealing with literary texts and provide fascinating insights about literature. This strategy, developed by Franco Moretti, represents an attempt at utilizing big data analytics for the purposes of literary scholarship.

Three main arguments for distant reading:

  • not “years of analysis for a day of synthesis” (Marc Bloch) – instead of embarking on close readings of the semantic and syntactic intricacies of single individual literary texts literary scholars can now use large databases, scan thousands of literary texts and identify recurring patterns and large scale historical developments
  • traditional literary scholars tend to focus on a rather narrow selection of literary texts written by eg dead, white males; distant reading promises to pry open the canon to also include largely forgotten works of literature
  • a promise of greater objectivity – traditional literary scholarship tends to be subjective in the end, shaped by the literary scholar’s own norms, values, and prejudices

Try out the Google Ngram Viewer (about) or Euterpe, an examination of French scientific poetry from the Enlightenment to the beginning of the 20th century, led by Hugues Marchal. Or not.

Surface reading is not unitary method or a school of thought, but rather a general attitude towards literature that manifests itself in a set of heterogeneous practices linked by common presuppositions about the nature of cultural experience in general, such as the one claiming that by focusing on the meaning of literary texts we exclude and lose sight of another important dimension of literature.

Is the medium the message? To what extent do different media determine or preconfigure our reading experience and our interpretation of individual texts? The medial, material and technological preconditions of all communication forms, including reading.

The emergence of new media has a transforming effect on both society and the human psyche. What is the message of your cell phone? What psychological and social consequences does it have? How has it changed the way we think and act? How has it affected the structures and interactions of local, national, and global communities? What is the message of ebooks? Health effects, how the reading experience is enhanced or diminished by features not available for print books, the legal, political, and economic consequences of the increasing distribution and use of ebooks.

Why does the materiality of books matter? Since the 1980s scholars of modern literature have begun to devote increasing attention to those features of books that medievalists and Renaissance scholars have always considered crucial: the stuff that books are made of (their size, weight, type of paper, and binding) and the texts that surround the text proper (the cover, the copyright pages, marginalia).

  • in 1997 French literary theorist Gérard Genette coined the term paratext to name all those texts; paratexts are the portals through which we access the text proper, ‘thresholds of interpretation’ ‘thresholds of interpretation’ which significantly shape our reading experience, including our attempts to make sense of what we read
  • in the 1980s and 1990s Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht and Ludwig Pfeiffer invited us to focus on the ‘materialities of communication…all those phenomena and conditions that contribute to the production of meaning, without being meaning themselves’
  • in a more recent special issue of Representations (108.1 (2009): 1–21) Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus introduced the term surface reading to name a kind of reading strategy that focuses on the surfaces of texts, ‘what is evident, perceptible, apprehensible in texts; what is neither hidden nor hiding; what, in the geometrical sense, has length and breadth but no thickness, and therefore covers no depth. A surface is what insists on being looked at rather than what we must train ourselves to see through.’

How is print culture responding to the challenges posed by digitalisation? One way is via remediation, the dynamic relation between older and newer media and the way they refashion and adapt to each other. In 1999 J David Bolter and Richard Grusin published Remediation: understanding new media, aiming at updating McLuhan’s insights for the 21st century. One of their central claims is that new media do not simply replace older media. Instead, they rework and redeploy older media, retaining some of their features and functions while discarding others. Media history is, in other words, not a series of radical breaks and ruptures, but rather a series of continual refunctionings and redeployments of older media by new media.

Remediation is defined as ‘the formal logic by which new media refashion prior media forms.’ It’s not only that new media remediate old media. Old media such as films and books also remediate new media such as computer games and hyper texts (retrograde remediation).

See eg McSweeney‘s Issue 19, Old Facts, New Fiction, & a Novella, which imitates and puts to new uses the multimedial quality of newer media:

By giving us the freedom to read these various texts and images and look at them in any order, this literary cigar box gives us the freedom to combine text and images in multiple ways. And that’s precisely the kind of freedom that we have learned to appreciate from hypertext. But this literary object here, all of this together, does something more than imitate hypertext and the world wide web.

It also does something that these newer media cannot do. It gives us a very sensuous and haptic access to these texts, these images here. We take these various artefacts into our hands, marvel at how well they’re made, and position them on the table next to each other, combining them in various ways. So McSweeney’s meets the challenge of new media by creating beautiful tangible literary objects. These material haptic qualities are well-nigh impossible to reproduce on the computer screen. McSweeney’s takes up the glove and competes in the medial arena, following its own maxim to create ’little, heavy, papery, beautiful things’.

Bolter and Grusin outline two major strategies in the medial competition between old and new media:

  • hypermediality – a ‘style of visual representation whose goal is to remind the viewer of the medium’; an early example of hypermediacy would be medieval books of hours, which contain beautiful illustrations that draw readers’ attention to the materiality of the book itself
  • transparent immediacy – where the goal is to make the reader or viewer forget the medium and give in to the illusion that what they experience is immediate and direct, eg 3d movies and fantasy novels

Verdict: the number of linked posts on reading and related shows that much of this was useful revision. An efficient FutureLearn MOOC, then, if not groundbreaking for me. My strategy remains curated reading, the introvert appropriate approach to social reading, which all too often though tends towards half-reading.

Update: interestingly, the Digital Reading Network‘s Simon Frost picks up the idea of curated reading from the other side with the concept of the ‘Net Work’, capturing “the idea of the work as an event which consists of people, places and bibliographic objects”. See also Reading the age of the Internet (Language and Literature 25(3)).

A related issue is the dissemination of literature in the digital age, as seen at Danish public libraries. See IVA’s Ditte Balling and CROWD, including its INTRE:FACE conference (posts), for more.

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