Tag Archives: reading

Long Reads and the Stockholm Syndrome

Since reading one of the longest novels I have shied away from other lengthy tomes despite thoroughly enjoying my 1000-page adventure. When considering this choice, I frame my decision as defending against a type of literary post-purchase rationalisation: after investing such an enormous amount of time in reading a book, will I be able to objectively consider both its merits and imperfections? After 900 pages, are the quotes I’m highlighting really as profound as I think? I’m doubtful.

Apparently I’m not alone in this, as Mark O’Connell makes clear in a light-hearted essay asking how much of the enjoyment we get from reading long novels can be attributed to a literary Stockholm syndrome?

You finish the last page of a book like Gravity’s Rainbow and—even if you’ve spent much of it in a state of bewilderment or frustration or irritation—you think to yourself, “that was monumental.” But it strikes me that this sense of monumentality, this gratified speechlessness that we tend to feel at such moments of closure and valediction, has at least as much to do with our own sense of achievement in having read the thing as it does with a sense of the author’s achievement in having written it. When you read the kind of novel that promises to increase the strength of your upper-body as much as the height of your brow […] there’s an awe about the scale of the work which, rightly, informs your response to it but which, more problematically, is often difficult to separate from an awe at the fact of your own surmounting of it. […]

And there is, connected with this phenomenon, what I think of as Long Novel Stockholm syndrome.

via The Browser

How to Internet: Reading

One of the first problems you’re likely to run across as someone who’s now finding lots of interesting things on the internet is that you’re amassing more stuff you want to read than you’ve ever had before and it’s getting hard to track. If you’re like I was for about five years, this will likely take the form of having 80 tabs open persistently causing your browser to be slow and your potential for catastrophic data loss to be high.

There are three big obstacles to getting reading done on the internet. The first, and hardest to fix technically, is your context. That is: if you’re used to just getting on the internet to offer constant partial attention to your browsing while instant messaging, listening to music, and watching video clips, settling in to a multi-page essay will feel very difficult. So too, if you frequently focus only on the internet, but click like mad and just skim everything, reading will feel broken to you.

There are two solutions to this problem: change you situation and change your mind. Frequently people who find themselves unable to focus at the computer will find themselves much more able to do so on a tablet, e-reader, or even phone because they have different habits there. This is a subtle and automatic way to change what you’re expecting on the internet without expending the mental effort to actually execute with the other option, which is just to put some effort into calming your mind and allowing yourself to focus. (Like most things I’ve written about this weeks, whole books could be written about this paragraph.)

The second obstacle is in some sense the most mundane, but if one is to judge by the amount it gets talked about, also the most frustrating. If you spend much time at all trying to read on the internet you’ll soon notice the frequency with which publishers (especially those coming from other media) divide their content to maximize page views. A 1000 word article split over ten pages is a good way to drive page views but terrible for reader satisfaction. There a number of ways to un-paginate an article—browser extensions, web services, and local software all exist to do this parsing for you—but the most used is simply the printer-friendly view that most such sites provide.

But that solution gets us to the final notable problem, which is that many pages on the internet that house articles you want to read weren’t really built for reading. Probably the most important way in which they aren’t is that they have (visually) loud ads and other content surrounding them that pulls your eye and attention away from reading. Another problem is type set poorly, things like: type set too small or too large, type set in very wide columns so you constantly lose your place (especially common on printer-friendly pages), and poor contrast between the type and the background. I believe that these problem are today best solved with Readable. What Readable offers is a bookmarklet (a bit of Javascript disguised as a bookmark) that automatically changes any page on the internet to exactly the formatting you’ve told it you want pages to have for reading. This concept first came from Readability, but that has subsequently become a far more feature-full and complex tool.

Finally, we need to tackle that tab overload issue, because even as browsers get better at not losing such data they still do. And, as people get more and more powerful and mobile phones and tablets, keeping everything on your desktop is ever less feasible. The best solution I know of is to effectively outsource your tabs. Send all of them off to a bookmarking tool, be it delicious, Pinboard, normal bookmarks (with or without syncing), or a tool that’s purpose-built to handle all those articles you want to read.

Instapaper is what I use, but it’s optimized for an Apple-centric technical environment. It’s great if you want read articles offline on an iPad or iPhone, but doesn’t have native clients for any other platform. Readability, which was mentioned earlier, is a more platform-agnostic alternative (by virtue of a web app) which offers the nice perk that you automatically pass on a portion of your membership cost to the publishers you most frequently use the service to read. (Though the fact the you’re paying for membership is a non-trivial downside.) Beyond those there are number of other services built for this purpose, the most prominent of which is Read it Later. I have no experience or expertise at all with any of this last class.

I hope you now understand the importance of the triple threat of the printer-friendly view, in-situ reformatter, and the reading-centric bookmarking service. Far more importantly, I hope you’ve found a solution to your most frustrating struggle in actually reading all that great web-content you’re now finding.

How We Read

What we know about how we learn to read and how our ability to read developed is fascinating, and in a review of a book that looks at exactly this — Stanislas Dehaene’s Reading in the Brain — Jonah Lehrer offers us a wonderful teaser on exactly that: the hows of reading, from a neuroscience perspective.

The introduction:

Right now, your mind is performing an astonishing feat. Photons are bouncing off these black squiggles and lines — the letters in this sentence — and colliding with a thin wall of flesh at the back of your eyeball. The photons contain just enough energy to activate sensory neurons, each of which is responsible for a particular plot of visual space on the page. The end result is that, as you stare at the letters, they become more than mere marks on a page. You’ve begun to read.

Seeing the letters, of course, is just the start of the reading process. […] The real wonder is what happens next. Although our eyes are focused on the letters, we quickly learn to ignore them. Instead, we perceive whole words, chunks of meaning. […] In fact, once we become proficient at reading, the precise shape of the letters — not to mention the arbitrariness of the spelling — doesn’t even matter, which is why we read word, WORD, and WoRd the same way.

Later in the review, Lehrer’s description of what it is like to suffer from pure alexia reads like something taken directly from Oliver Sacks‘ essential and eye-opening book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.

via Mind Hacks

Hypertext Comprehension and Delinkification

Deciding whether to click on links while reading material in hypertext form gives rise to an additional cognitive load and additional distractions, goes a theory championed by Steve Gillmor and Nicholas Carr.

In certain circumstances this is an argument for the “delinkification” of text, they suggest, as this will hopefully bring about increased comprehension.

While I don’t totally agree, I find this analogy rather neat:

The link is, in a way, a technologically advanced form of a footnote. It’s also, distraction-wise, a more violent form of a footnote. Where a footnote gives your brain a gentle nudge, the link gives it a yank. What’s good about a link – its propulsive force – is also what’s bad about it.

via @anibalmastobiza

Primary link: Nicholas Carr arguing for delinkification.
Support link: Steve Gillmor’s Wikipedia entry.
Support link: Nicholas Carr’s Wikipedia entry.
By means of: Anibal Astobiza’s tweet.

Ways of Reading, Writing, Learning

A Working Library’s Ways of Reading could be called the nine rules of reading, writing, and learning.

My favourite three:

Always read with a pen in hand. The pen should be used both to mark the text you want to remember and to write from where the text leaves you. Think of the text as the starting point for your own words.

Reading and writing are not discrete activities; they occur on a continuum, with reading at one end, writing at the other. The best readers spend their time somewhere in between.

A good reader reads attentively, not only listening to what the writer says, but also to how she says it. This is how a reader learns to write.

via robertogreco