On Reading

Being a Better Online Reader

Maria Konnikova collects evidence and hypotheses about how the shift from print to online texts has changed the experience of reading. She begins with reference to Maryanne Wolf, whose book Proust and the Squid examines the history of the science and development of the reading brain from antiquity to the twenty-first century. Konnikova writes that after her book was published, she received hundreds of letters from readers: “a theme began to emerge: the more reading moved online, the less students seemed to understand.” Wolf decided that another book was necessary to investigate why use of online texts resulted in superficial reading.

Konnikova cites experts and research into how online reading changes the reading process:

  • Anne Mangen, a professor at the National Centre for Reading Education and Research at Norway’s University of Stavanger, believes that the reading device, whether a printed book or electronic screen, affects reading. With electronic devices, the intangibility, the layout of words, the scrolling screen (as opposed to the turning of printed pages), and the ability to click on hyperlinks makes the physiology of the reading experience different from that of a printed book. She also studies “how the format of reading material may affect not just eye movement or reading strategy but broader processing abilities.” She hypothesizes that people prefer printed books “because the nature of the object itself has deeper repercussions for reading and comprehension.”
  • KindleZiming Liu, professor at San Jose State University, researches digital reading and the use of e-books. A review of earlier studies that compared print and digital reading combined with his own research revealed several changes in the reading process. When reading on screen, people tend to browse and scan for keywords, whereas on printed pages they concentrate more on following the text more linearly: “Skimming, Liu concluded, had become the new reading.” When skimming, readers do not stop to think about what they’re reading. Further, we tire more easily when reading on a computer screen because of the constant effort to filter out distractions like hyperlinks, and our eyes may fatigue easily because of the need to readjust to frequently changing layouts, colors, and contrasts.
  • Mary Dyson, a psychologist at the University of Reading who studies how we perceive and interact with typography and design, has found that the layout of a text can significantly affect the reading process. When lines of text on a screen are too long, moving the eyes from one line to the next becomes more difficult. We read more efficiently when text is arranged in a single column rather than in multiple columns or section. Even the font, color, and size of text all affect the reading experience. All of these parameters can change more quickly on a screen than in print, and the mental and physical effort of adjusting to these changes can make electronic reading harder than print reading.

One of Wolf’s concerns is that digital formats negatively affect the “sophisticated comprehension processes” of what she calls deep reading:

“Reading is a bridge to thought,” she says. “And it’s that process that I think is the real endangered aspect of reading. In the young, what happens to the formation of the complete reading circuitry? Will it be short-circuited and have less time to develop the deep-reading processes? And in already developed readers like you and me, will those processes atrophy?”

However, it’s possible that the ability to focus attention rather than reading ability is what suffers in digital reading. Some research has found that people who read on devices not connected to the Internet achieve the same comprehension and retention of material as people who read printed books.

Why reading and writing on paper can be better for your brain

This article complements the previous one nicely. Here Tom Chatfield reports in The Guardian on research into how writing by hand—with pen or pencil on paper—differs from typing on a computer.

Since writing and reading are necessarily intimately related, Chatfield begins with some recent research into digital reading:

  • writingIn her new book Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World, linguistics professor Naomi Baron presents results of a survey of reading preferences conducted among 300 university students in the U.S., Japan, Slovakia, and Germany: “92% of respondents replied that it was hard copy that best allowed them to concentrate.”
  • Researchers Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer compared the effectiveness among students of writing longhand notes vs. typing on a laptop: “Their conclusion: the relative slowness of writing by hand demands heavier ‘mental lifting,’ forcing students to summarise rather than to quote verbatim – in turn tending to increase conceptual understanding, application and retention.”
  • At Indiana University, psychologist Karin James conducted a study with five-year-old children who did not yet know how to read or write. She asked the children to reproduce a letter or shape by typing into a computer, drawing onto a blank sheet of paper, and tracing over a dotted outline. “ When the children were drawing freehand, an MRI scan during the test showed activation across areas of the brain associated in adults with reading and writing. The other two methods showed no such activation.”

Yet, as Chatfield points out, while writing on paper may have benefits over typing, computers offer us the ability to conduct research and to gather and collate information. He concludes:

Above all, it seems to me, we must abandon the notion that there is only one way of reading, or that technology and paper are engaged in some implacable war.

Reading Addict: The Scientific Effects Of A Damn Good Book On Your Brain

In this recent article Lauren Martin refers to a 2012 article, Your Brain on Fiction, in The New York Times by Annie Murphy Paul that reports on neuroscience research into how reading fiction affects the brain.

What I like about Martin’s article is that she offers a great description of what getting lost in a good book feels like. As Martin explains:

Reading about the struggles and triumphs of fictional characters has the power to make us understand our own struggles and the struggles of those around us better.

Through reading, we develop a strong “theory of mind,” which enables us to understand and comprehend the emotional cues of others as if we were experiencing the emotions ourselves.

If you’ve ever gotten lost in a good book, you know what Martin means:

Only reading can change your brain so much you literally feel like you’re in another world. Only fiction has the power to physically change your state of mind.

Only a good book can change your life and make you believe you’re experiencing life in another dimension.

Blog a Day Challenge: February Report

January was all about convincing myself that I could indeed find something to write about and produce a blog post every day.

In February I turned my gaze outward and looked at other blogs and bloggers instead of just my blog/myself as blogger. I found a number of blogs that I learned a lot from. I also began reading more articles online about how and why to blog.

Here are my stats for February:

Number of posts written: 31

Shortest post: 215

Longest post: 1,880

Total words written: 20, 455

Average post length: 660

Distribution of posts across my three blogs:

The total of posts here may not equal the number of posts written last month because I occasionally publish the same post on more than one blog. However, I have included each post only once in my total word count.

What I Learned in February

  • Despite February’s being three days shorter than January, I wrote the same number of posts, 31, this month as last. However, my total word count in February was 1,340 more than in January. My average post length went up, from 617 in January to 660 in February. And my longest post in February was 520 words longer than its counterpart in January.
  • One thing I was surprised to learn in my reading about blogging is that some people advocate writing posts longer than the 500–750 words I had long ago read was the optimal post length. So instead of trying to limit myself to 500–750 words, I tried to write longer rather than shorter in February. In January I wrote only four posts of 1,000 words or longer, whereas in February I wrote six posts of 1,000 words or more. But I’m still not convinced that more than 1,000 words is an optimal post length. I’m more comfortable with posts of about 800 words. Although there will inevitably be shorter posts, I’m going to work on writing more posts of about 800 words from now on. And I’m going to think of posts of more than 1,000 words as occasional occurrences, when the subject warrants, rather than as ideals to aim for.

Last month’s featured posts:

1. An Ode to My Bracelet, in Memory of Frayne

Over the last two weeks of February I participated in the WordPress Writing 201: Poetry course. I learned a heck of a lot, even though grinding out a poem that fulfilled three specified criteria didn’t always produce top-quality results. But I’m happy enough with this one to share it.

2. What Your Favorite Books Tell You About Your Writing

Most writers are also avid readers, because the only way to learn about good writing is to read a lot of writing by others. This exercise helps writers to discover what their own areas of passion are by analyzing the books that appeal to them the most. I found it an invaluable discovery.

What advice do you have for me about blogging? I’d especially like to hear your thoughts on the best length for a post.

WordPress Writing 201: Poetry Class, Day 10

It’s the final day of this course, Day 10, which offers the following challenges:

  • Prompt: future
  • Form: sonnet
  • Device: chiasmus

Sonnet

A sonnet is normally composed of 14 lines of verse.

There are several ways you can split your sonnet into stanzas (if you wish to), though the most common ones are 8–6 and 4–4–3–3.

Likewise, if you decide to use rhyme in your sonnet, you can choose between various rhyming schemes, like ABAB BCBC CDCD EE, ABAB CDCD EFEF GG, or ABBA ABBA CDC DCD, among others.

At their best, something happens between the first and last verse, and especially between the first eight and final six lines. You want your reader to have experienced something more than just a brief sonic pleasure. You want to present a fully-formed thought.

Chiasmus

At its simplest, a chiasmus is essentially a reversal, an inverted crossing (it got its name from the greek letter chi – X)… From a fairly straightforward reordering of words — where A and B are repeated as B and A — a chiasmus can develop into more complex structures: instead of words, phrases. Instead of phrases, ideas or concepts. Chiasmus is effective in poems because it’s a form of repetition — and by now we all now how crucial repetition is for poetry. But the reversal injects the repeated words with freshness, and allows us to play with (and radically change) the meaning of a line.

Writing Process

I had seen today’s assignment last night, so when I came across this article, I knew it had to be my future subject.

A Brave New World?

In an article in The Guardian a doctor announces,
“Full-body transplants could take place in just two years.”
Italian surgeon Sergio Canavero says he should be able
To graft a living person’s head onto a donated body.

This procedure could prolong the lives of people with terminal illness,
Canavero says, and he’s developing a program
To train neurosurgeons to do the complex surgery
Necessary to make the procedure work.

Forget the complex surgery. What would it be like
To wake up inside a brand new body? Would the brain
Think it lived inside an alien creature?

And what about the consciousness that once belonged to the grafted brain?
Would it still retain its sense of identity?
The brain does not = consciousness, nor does consciousness = the brain.

WordPress Writing 201: Poetry Class, Day 9

Right up front, let me admit that today, Day 9, is the one day I allowed myself to bail on, as I’ll explain in the section labeled Writing Process below.

Today’s parameters are:

  • Prompt: landscape
  • Form: found poetry
  • Device: enumeratio

Found Poetry

Like a blackmail letter in a sordid crime novel, a found poem is made up of words and letters others have created. It’s up to you, the poet, to find them (hence the name), extract them, and rejig them into something else: your poem.

Enumeratio

it basically means constructing a list, a successive enumeration (duh!) of multiple elements in the same series.

Writing Process

I was initially completely flummoxed on how to go about using found poetry on a computer screen or on a blog. What is the digital equivalent of cutting words out of the newspaper and pasting them onto a blank sheet of paper.

So I used the suggested tool poetweet, which allows you to fill in your Twitter name and then creates a poem (I chose a sonnet) from your tweets. Here’s what I got:

Mail Online

Residue of design.” – John Milton
Cities Grew Much Like Modern Ones
With “that dreadful Terry Eagleton”
View Us “As a Joke” | Mother Jones

Of Rooting for Love – The Atlantic
Especially for introverts – CNET
Writing Is Therapeutic |
Genre help save the planet?

Avoid frailty by rebuilding muscle
Organ Transplants, Experts Estimate
Fiction e-book | Cornell Chronicle

Dark of the Moon by John Sandford
She doesn’t need from a director
Wolf Meta: The Evolution of a Word

Well, OK, but what am I supposed to do with that?

As I was trying to devise some way to handle today’s assignment, a minor crisis occurred here at home—nothing dire, but quite time-consuming. By the time I finished dealing with that, it was time for dinner.

I took this occurrence as a sign that I just wasn’t cut out for this particular exercise in the first place. But I did learn what enumeratio is.

WordPress Writing 201: Poetry Class, Day 8

Today’s Day 8 assignment involves:

  • Prompt: drawer
  • Form: ode
  • Device: apostrophe

Ode

An ode is a laudatory poem celebrating a person, an object, a place, etc. It can come in any form these days, having shed its ancient (and much stricter) formal requirements.

At their best, odes are both a compelling portrait of something and an investigation (tacit or explicit) of the poet’s own relation to that thing.

For your poem today, focus on details — the things that make your chosen object unique — but also on the effect it produces on others (you or someone else).

Apostrophe

apostrophe (a-POS-truh-fee) … occurs when the speaker in the poem addresses another person or an object (usually personified) directly.

You can write a poem that is made up entirely of one extended apostrophe, or switch back and forth between addressing your reader and addressing someone (or something) else.

What tone and flavor will you choose for your apostrophe? Will it be plaintive, nostalgic, angry, admiring? The way you shape your address will greatly influence the feel of your poem.

Writing Process

One way to go about composing your ode would be, first, to make a list of the qualities and details you’d like to highlight, and then try to work them into a poem, crossing off those you’ve covered. Another: write as if you’re shooting a movie, following the subject of your ode from top to bottom, from left to right, etc.

My first task is to choose an object to center on. I chose the inscribed bracelet that I put on every morning because of its association with a friend of mine and also because I take it out of the drawer of my nightstand to put it on (clever incorporation of the prompt drawer).

bracelet

(The photo is the best I could do at the office with my phone.)

Here are the qualities and details of the bracelet that I’d like to highlight:

  • gold
  • inscription
  • scratched from long usage

An Ode to My Bracelet, in Memory of Frayne

Every morning after I’m showered and dressed
I open my nightstand drawer,
And take out my jewelry: a watch, three rings,
And you, my beloved gold bracelet.

You’re golden, just like Frayne,
My friend in whose memory I wear you.
She wore your sister in silver
Because she believed the inscription.

“Forever is now” she wanted to stress.
Her cancer advancing, she wanted to
Appreciate each day that she had left
And live it to the fullest.

She did. And now the scratches on you
Remind me of how very many days
I’ve worn you since…
Forever. Now. Always.

WordPress Writing 201: Poetry Class, Day 7

Here’s the assignment for Day 7:

  • Prompt: fingers
  • Form: prose poetry
  • Device: assonance

Prose Poetry

A prose poem is any piece of verse written using the normal typography of prose, while still maintaining elements of poetry, like rhythm, imagery, etc.

The words may be arranged typographically like any piece of prose, but the sounds, the rhythms, and the imagery all pull us in the direction of poetry.

Since you can’t use the page (or screen) the same way you do with regular verse — you simply write to the end of each line — the power of the language needs to come through via other channels: repetition, well-chosen consonants, striking similes and metaphors, or any other device you feel might tip the scale toward poetry.

Assonance

the strategic repetition of vowels in close proximity to each other.

Writing Process

I can’t document why I wrote about this topic because it came to me unawares, as so often happens when I read or think about something, then leave it to percolate while I move on to something else.

But here’s an interesting aside: As a result of this course, I’m beginning to think sometimes in rhyming couplets. I thought prose poetry would be relatively easy to write because of the lack of constricting form. But the rhyming couplets keep coming out to play, making the writing sound more like traditional poetry than prose poetry.

Go figure.

Remembrances

This photo album in my lap contains memories from times past. As my fingers turn the pages I focus on the faces of those whom I’ll never see again anywhere but here.

My father is here. The fading photos mirror my fading memories of someone who died just before I turned twelve. The earliest photos, from before I was born, show him happy, handsome in his Navy uniform. Then a few show him holding me, a tiny baby. In several more I’m two or three. My father appears in only black and white, the fate of someone who died before the common use of color photography.

Grandma T., who helped raise me, is here as well. In black and white she and Grandpa stand outside the farmhouse in upstate New York, where I spent the happiest two years of my childhood life. Grandpa died early, but Grandma lived long enough to appear in color before she disappears.

My in-laws are here, too, the ones who showed me that marriage could be a bond forged in loving harmony. Their love and acceptance shaped the adult this adolescent me grew up to be and altered my view of family. They’re preserved in color photography.

And friends appear here. Anne and Frayne, the two who, for me, remain the touchstone of my definition of friend. Both lost within ten months, but here, in color, they continue to smile at me.

My fingers close this book of the people who’ve turned my world from black and white into colorful remembrances of life.

WordPress Writing 201: Poetry Class, Day 6

The second half of our poetry writing course begins with this Day 6 assignment:

  • Prompt: hero or heroine
  • Form: ballad
  • Device: anaphora/epistrophe

Ballad

Ballads are dramatic, emotionally charged poems that tell a story, often about bigger-than-life characters and situations. They can be long, short, rhymed, or unrhymed — by now there are no strict rules — though it’s still common for ballads to have a refrain.

A ballad has something removed from daily life about it — though everyday topics can definitely be given the ballad treatment. The secret is to find the drama, the struggle, the heightened emotions of a given situation and use them to tell a story.

anaphora/epistrophe

anaphora: repetition of the same word (or cluster of words) at the beginning of multiple lines of verse

epistrophe: repetition of the same word (or cluster of words) at the end of multiple lines of verse

symploce: use of both an anaphora and an epistrophe in successive lines of poetry

Writing Process

The first task is to choose a hero (I’m using hero as a gender-neutral term here) to feature. I started out wanting to celebrate firefighters, but I had trouble coming up with a narrative progression to do that. One solution to that problem would have been to create a single, composite firefighter, a larger-than-life figure like Johnny Appleseed or Paul Bunyan.

However, as I contemplated that approach, I realized I know a lot about one of my personal heroes, Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States in 1849. By opening the way for women to pursue careers in medicine and other professions, she helped to change society’s views about both what women could do and should do.

So Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell it is.

The second task is to note the key narrative points in her story:

  • Decided to defy the taboo against women attending medical school
  • Expanded the Victorian notion of what was proper for women by emphasizing medicine as a natural extension of a woman’s world of home and children
  • Was careful to avoid suggestions that she wanted to overturn woman’s traditional role
  • Helped other women enter and complete medical studies
  • Established the first hospital to train women physicians after graduation
  • Contributed to societal reform by emphasizing the necessity of educating all women about nutrition and hygiene

In constructing the ballad, I’m going to start with the refrain:

She emphasized education,
She emphasized aspiration,
She emphasized determination,
Her life demonstrates all three.

Now to build the poem around this refrain.

I’m almost too embarrassed to post the result here. Parts of it sound terribly forced, and it needs several more stanzas to do justice to its namesake. But I’ve spent the better part of the day on it, and it’s time to me give up and hit the “publish” button.

The Ballad of Elizabeth Blackwell

Crusader Elizabeth Blackwell, the first U. S. female M. D.,
Lead the way in social reform by shifting the cultural norm
Of what a woman should and could be
In the mid-nineteenth century.

She emphasized education,
She emphasized aspiration,
She emphasized determination,
Her life demonstrates all three.

Only men could enroll in medical school
When Elizabeth Blackwell applied.
Her future classmates thought it a joke
But when she arrived their laughter died.

She emphasized education,
She emphasized aspiration,
She emphasized determination,
Her life demonstrates all three.

She graduated first in her class in 1849,
The first woman to earn a medical degree
In the U. S., where spinster or wife and mother
Were all women were told they could be.

She emphasized education,
She emphasized aspiration,
She emphasized determination,
Her life demonstrates all three.

To avoid dissent she carefully towed the line
Of expanding, not changing, traditional roles.
She could be a physician and still maintain
A woman’s meek, spiritual, nurturing soul.

She emphasized education,
She emphasized aspiration,
She emphasized determination,
Her life demonstrates all three.

When other women earned medical degrees
And found no opportunities for on-the-job experience,
Elizabeth founded her own hospital
And trained them there, her efforts immense.

WordPress Writing 201: Poetry Class, Day 5

The assignment for Day 5 includes the following:

  • Prompt: fog
  • Form: elegy
  • Device: metaphor

Elegy

Originally requiring specific meters, nowadays elegies come in all shapes and sizes, though they are united by their (often melancholic) focus on loss and longing.

As much as it can mourn something that’s gone forever, it can also celebrate it.

Elegiac couplet: a hexameter (six syllable) line followed by a pentameter (five syllable) line. No rhyme required.

Metaphor

A comparison of two concepts not usually thought of together, without the use of like or as.

Writing Process

I intended to write my elegy in elegiac couplets. I gave it a try. I really did. But those syllables just wouldn’t fall correctly into place.

I did, however, manage to work in the concept of fear. There are also a couple of metaphors here: fear as fog and the window of my mind.

The Fog of Uncertainty

“It’s diverticulitis, just as we thought,” the doctor says.
“But there’s also a spot on your pancreas.
We have to find out what that could be, and so
We’ve scheduled an endoscopic biopsy for next week.”

Spot. Biopsy. Fear washes over me,
Fogging my normally clear, intellectual mind.
Pure animal fear, that shatters the fragile pane
Between logical restraint and primal despair.

The fog hangs on for a week while I await
The day of the biopsy, then thickens for seven more days
While I await the results. “Benign,” the doctor says.
The fog pulls back, retreats, disappears. I am free!

WordPress Writing 201: Poetry Class, Day 4

The Day 4 assignment offers these challenges:

  • Prompt: animal
  • Form: concrete poetry
  • Device: enjambment

Concrete Poetry

Also known as shape poetry, the idea here is to arrange your words on the screen (or the page) so that they create a shape or an image. The meaning of the image can be obvious at first glance, or require some guesswork after reading the poem.

Enjambment

when a grammatical sentence stretches from one line of verse to the next.

Writing Process

I was glad to see enjambment as today’s device because it’s just about inevitable when you’re playing with a demanding form. In fact, I used this device in a couple of lines of yesterday’s acrostic because I needed the second line to begin with a particular letter:

Unless the day is sunny and clear, when
Nothing her beauty shrouds.

Grammatically and conceptually the second line here should begin with when, but the form required me to fudge a bit. And I expect the same thing will happen with today’s poem when I need to sculpt the line length to create the visual pattern I want.

The Giant Pacific Octopus

The giant Pacific octopus, one of nature’s most intelligent creatures,
Lives an average of three to five years in the wild before she
Reproduces. Then she holds on to the male’s sperm packet
And hunts for a suitable cave wherein to lay her
One-hundred-twenty thousand to four-hundred
Thousand eggs, which she lovingly tends.
She attaches her eggs to the walls
Of the cave, then splays her
Eight arms to seal it.
For six months she
Bathes the eggs,
Never eating,
Until she
Finally
Dies.

Then
Her offspring
Swim out into a
Brave new world, like
Tiny  grains  of  rice,  to
Grow and become the legacy
Of their mother’s self-sacrifice.

The Seahawks

The Seahawks
Became in 1975 the
Name of the new Seattle
National Football League team.
This name was chosen from more
Than one-thousand-seven-
Hundred entries
By fans.

This one looked more like a football in my word processor than it does here.

OK, this one’s corny.
It uses the form
Of the day but contains
Not very much poetry.

WordPress Writing 201: Poetry Class, Day 3

The assignment for Day 3 offers these three parameters:

  • Prompt: trust
  • Form: acrostic
  • Device: internal rhyme

Acrostic

Acrostics have been around for millennia: they’re a creative way to give order and convey multiple meanings at once while staying fairly subtle.

There have been two prevalent ways to create acrostics. In one, you follow the sequence of the alphabet, beginning each verse in your poem with a different one from A to Z (or to whatever letter you choose to reach — you’re not obliged to cover the entire ABC). This type of acrostic emphasizes the idea of seriality, of accumulation, or of a preset order.

The other type of acrostic is one in which the first (or last) letter of each verse together spell out a message: a short sentence, a word, a name (for example, medieval poets loved writing love poems with acrostics spelling out their beloved’s name).

Some interesting ways to use acrostics include writing a poem that asks a question to which the answer is the spelled-out word; one in which the “hidden” message contradicts or otherwise complicates the content of the poem.

Writing Process

I’ll start with a simple acrostic, a poem that spells out its subject matter.

Mount Rainier’s white head appears
Out of her bed of clouds.
Unless the day is sunny and clear, when
Nothing her beauty shrouds.

To see her in her majesty
And mystery
I find to be
Necessity.

This includes the acrostic form and the device of internal rhyme, but not the concept of trust. It also sounds a bit pretentious. I would probably never use the word shrouds, except when it’s necessary to rhyme with clouds.

But look: The first line in my second stanza must start with t. There’s an opening for trust:

Mount Rainier’s white head appears
Out of her bed of clouds.
Unless the day is sunny and clear, when
Nothing her beauty shrouds.

Trusting in her majesty
And mystery
I find to be
Necessity.

There’s still that pesky shrouds, but the more I read this poem, the less that word bothers me. I’m trying to convey the image of stateliness and reverence, and this old-fashioned word contributes to that imagery.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your comments.

Literary News and Notes

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