Reading in the Post-Paper Age

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Some said the day would never come: that we’d never surrender our ink and pressed pulp for pixels on a screen. But then iPad, Kindle, Nook, and a slew of other reading alternatives changed many of our minds.

Different Readers, Different Writers

As a writer, I keep my eyes open for what other writers are doing, especially in the online space. One thing that jumped out at me was the use of paragraphs. In days of old, paragraphs were supposed to enclose a single overarching idea, contain a topic sentence and then some supporting sentences. But today, it seems like paragraph breaks show up every sentence or two. Unquestionably, this helps the hurried reader, as it’s much easier to zero in on where one left off reading before the last instant message distracted the reader, however the organization and depth of writing seem to suffer.

This atomization of reading and writing carries over into readers’ choice of format. According to a 2007 article in The Guardian, one in four Americans didn’t read any books in the prior year. Yet I don’t believe we’re reading less, just reading smaller bites of information. If we could measure the number of words read in a given year, I suspect the number would be headed upwards. The only difference is that most of those words were likely read on Facebook and Twitter.

Hunting vs. Grazing

In school, I got into trouble for ‘skimming’ texts. When confronted with a wall of words I cared nothing about, I would blast through them, pick up a few of the big ideas, and call it done. My instructors were hoping I’d ‘immerse’ myself in the text and absorb every nuance. Eventually, I learned to do it ‘their way’ for as long as I was in the class. Meanwhile, I found books that I enjoyed, and had no trouble becoming immersed in them.

Yet today, there’s probably more skimming than ever going on. Search engines led the way by providing snippets of text right in the search results. The truth, is we don’t have the time to deeply savor all of the content coming at us, so skimming and scanning become survival tools rather than crutches for the lazy. The only difference between a targeted hunt for needed information and mindless data-grazing is clarity of purpose. As long as we keep in mind why we’re doing what we’re doing, scanning helps us get to the useful bits.

Physical Piles, Virtual Piles

Stacks of books, magazines and papers are the curse of many an avid reader. In some ways, eReaders obviously push the problem out of the material universe and into the virtual. However, with the greater availability of media, the virtual piles grow (virtually) bigger. I’m quite sure I’ll never get to watch all the TV series I have queued in Netflix, and I’ve got a long list of books squirreled across three different eReader platforms waiting for my attention. Now that the DSM-V has classified hoarding as a disorder, will there be a classification for someone with ten thousand messages in their inbox and hundreds of eBooks in their ‘to read’ queue?

Reading Alone

Readers aren’t usually thought of as social creatures, yet technology has isolated readers even more. Before Amazon, getting a book required a trip to the library or the bookstore. Amazon, and booksellers like it, first drew book-buyers into the online world, then, with eReaders, both buying and reading books become an Internet-only experience. The US bookselling giant Borders collapsed under pressure from online merchants, leaving many neighborhoods not only without a bookstore, but also without a place to buy coffee and pastries and hang out with friends. Although Borders was a corporate giant the likes of Walmart, it also provided a gathering space for local color, including musicians and touring authors. It remains to be seen if online social media can take up the slack left by the decline of brick-and-mortar booksellers.

Multitasking with Multiple Screens

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Perhaps it is a testament to our brain’s ability to cope with multiple streams of data, or an indictment of our impatience, but when offered more than one screen, I for one will try to use them all. On my TV, I may have Netflix running, while I think of something to check or look up on my tablet. Then my phone beeps with an incoming text. Five minutes later I realize I need to rewind my TV show if I am to have any hope of knowing what is going on.

I’m finding it takes more discipline to deal with multiple screens. In the same sense that “the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence,” there always seems to be something more interesting on the screen I’m not currently observing. Yet the price paid is enormous. For me, trying to take in more than one stream at a time kills any enjoyment I might have gotten from any of them.

If there’s a killer skill for the 21st century, it is information control: closing down, avoiding or ignoring all channels but one in the face of infinite distraction. In this arena, so many of us struggle to separate what we really care about from all the distractions diverting our attention. Yet the screens won’t go away by themselves. We’ll have to make better choices, or be overrun by our own desire for more and more to read.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Pat Orner Oliver on .

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