Idle Hands, Idle Readers?

Is it any surprise that a quick search for “tl;dr cat” turns up multiple adorbs? Like this:

Image result for tl;dr cat

And this:

Image result for tl;dr cat

I could go on with this, but I won’t.

Instead, I’ll point you, dear reader, back to my post from last semester (Fall 2017) on chapter 3 of Naomi Baron’s Words Onscreen (note that the funny, ultra-short Seinfeld video I had posted at the bottom is gone – a reminder that the YouTube takedown is always a possibility and it can screw up the great ending to a blog post!) where I pointed out that, throughout the history of human literacy, we’ve been finding ways to avoid reading SO.MUCH.TEXT. And, now that I’ve thrown Nicole Howard’s The Book: The Life Story of a Technology and Alex Wright’s Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages into the mix with Baron for Spring 2018 semester, I can see even more clearly that these issues of the material history of the book, information management, and reading practices are inextricably intertwined.

The ever increasing efficiency with which we produce books and other texts means simply that we will never, ever, EVAH be able to read anything close to all. Not even a tiny fraction of all. So we skim and scan and try to take in what we can in the limited time we have, only to be increasingly berated because we just.don’ with all this digital distraction in our way and these newfangled ebooks and all these zillions of words onscreen. I won’t rehash my thoughts on this whole tl;dr thing because I said what I wanted to about that in the post linked to above. What I want to do is jump on a comment from one of Baron’s student research subjects in chapter 4 (“The Appeal of Words Onscreen”) that I want to put in conversation with Writing for the Web’s visit to the UGA Special Collections Libraries last week during which we examined a small selection of materials from the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript library curated by Anne DeVine and myself.

Let’s Get Physical

When asked about their preferences and reading habits with regard to hardcopy books and digital texts, one student told Baron that s/he felt a “[l]ack of physical interaction with reading material” when reading onscreen (p 87). A couple of pages later, another student tells Baron that

“Reading [on] paper is active – I’m engaged and thinking, reacting, marking up the page. Reading a screen feels passive to me.”
(p 89, brackets in original)


These comments are striking me harder this time because we’ve just spent time engaging with artists books and early printed texts that require that “active” engagement that these students are talking about, but that also resist the kind of immersive, close, careful reading that Baron privileges and laments the seeming demise of.

For example, one of the books we looked at was the Hargrett’s copy of Michael Kidner’s The Elastic Membrane, an artist’s book that includes a homemade “computer” that a “reader” can use to produce images. It requires interaction, but what kind of reading practices is such a “book” facilitating? Not the ones that Baron and Nicholas Carr and others are putting on a pedestal. This kind of reading is more like interactivity, something that lots of the books from Hargrett required, even old manuscripts that are so large a reader has to stand to read them (and are we really reading when we can’t read the Latin they are written in)? And yet, I think there’s something to what those students are saying about how physical interaction with hard copies of texts is really important. If reading onscreen is truly more “passive” in terms of physical engagement and interactivity, then how can we, as writers work to remediate that physicality and experiential quality into digital texts? Is interactivity and material engagement the answer to tl;dr?


The Real Word, Digital Version

Twenty years ago, Janet Murray suggested that the future of narrative was on the holodeck (we’ll be reading this article later this semester, kids!). And I think that her ideas about interactive narrative (a more game-like approach to storytelling) are still valid and on target, but I’m also thinking about how the material world itself is becoming a kind of holodeck. The rush of augmented reality applications and experiences seems to have taken on increasing velocity of late. I’ve noticed a lot of AR stuff (like this Savannah tourism app and this cool remediation of the post-it note) coming out of our own New Media Institute here at UGA and, in just the last couple of weeks, the old gray lady herself, the venerable New York Times, has jumped on the bandwagon with a new app for telling AR stories.

There are also lots of AR books (lots of which are children’s books) out there like this comic book:

AR Comic Book Image
Modern Polaxis comic book with AR reading app. [Source: Sutu Eats Flies]

And here’s a video that shows how it works:

Again, I don’t propose to have answers here to the tl;dr problem, but I really do think that interactive design and materiality are really key to engaging readers of digital texts. As we continue our exploration of rare books and consider our key challenge – creating digital texts that get readers to read onscreen – I think there are ideas in both the weird conceptual artists books and in interactive AR and VR and video game tech that we need to put into play. Once again, I think it goes back to interaction design.

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