Technology is not the death of deep reading

By Emilie Hancock

“People do still love to read, but they don’t have a lot of time.”

— Julian Yap, Co-Founder of Serial Box Publishing

Last month, National Public Radio (NPR) announced a new reason for bibliophiles to celebrate. In an article about publishers returning to serialized fiction, Serial Box Publishing Co-Founder Julian Yap reiterates an all-too-common argument for why most Americans — three quarters of us, according to an Associated Press-Ipsos poll — don’t read books: not enough time. While we have little chance of decreasing how much time we spend working, caring for family and commuting, the amount of time that could stand the most modification is leisure time.

Last year, the average American over 15 years old spent around 3 hours watching television every day. In contrast, only 15 minutes a day were spent reading. I think the real reason we don’t read books is much less complex than not having enough time. What we require is not the impossible feat of adding hours to each day, but rather a realistic and achievable change in how we use the hours we already have. What we need is a change of habit. By embracing reading material that transcends books of traditional length and publication method, we can re-establish a reading culture in the digital age.

For many Americans, habitually reading for pleasure might seem like a quaint relic of the past. But a plethora of modern studies prove that the positive effects of reading are still relevant today. Besides warding off the effects of mental aging, reducing stress and strengthening memory, attention and analytical thinking skills, a report by the Harvard Medical School shows that reading burns 50% more calories than watching T.V. does. Plus, a report by the National Endowment for the Arts shows that readers are more likely than non-readers to volunteer or do charity work, which means that reading ends up being good for everyone.

But knowing how reading improves quality of life doesn’t necessarily make it easier to fit into a daily routine. Many of us are deterred from reading by the simple — and false — assumption that reading for pleasure entails reading traditional books. Those aren’t for me, we think, those self-contained, slightly awkward remnants of the past. For many of us, settling for anything less than a multimedia experience seems like a choice for ascetic monks. Where are the graphics, the links? We protest. Not to mention that the thought of cracking open a book without chapters makes us feel on the verge of propelling endlessly through a murky abyss. What if I want to stop reading, but can’t find a good place? Rather than risk it, we avoid reading.

Study after study shows that increased media consumption has been the culprit in decreased reading in recent years. We read differently, quickly skimming for keywords, then abandoning the remaining text. The shift further away from deep reading to scanning seems inevitable. Digital mediums permeate our lives from work to play, and it seems that as innovators create more ways for consumers to use technology, reading books is rendered less likely. But this begs the question: Does this mean that reading is rendered less likely?

Not at all. There are countless places where reading indulges Americans’ increased use of digital devices. We just have to know where to find them. First thing’s first: reading doesn’t just mean reading books. While eBook reading is on the rise, there’s no need to limit ourselves to these digital iterations of traditional novels. Publishers like Serial Box tap into our newfound need for speed reading by churning out digestible chunks of material that take around 40 minutes to read and are designed to look good on mobile devices. Because no additional text is left looming unread, readers can enjoy wondering what happens next without feeling guilty about not reading the next chapter.

While you’re waiting for the next installment of serial fiction, you can find even more ways to read in small doses. Sign up to receive daily emails, and read a poem a day from the Poetry Foundation, flash fiction from Every Day Fiction, short nonfiction from Delancey Place or even classic literature from Daily Lit. Of course, there are plenty of other options, but you can simplify your search for digital literature by visiting the most iconic place to find reading material: the library.

No longer warehouses for print books, libraries are playing an increasingly active role as centers for community engagement. Part of their transformation addresses patrons’ growing demand for digital content by “offering eBooks and 21st century library services.” One way that many libraries choose to satisfy their patrons’ craving for digital is by offering on-demand reading experiences with the mobile library app BiblioBoard (Think Netflix for libraries). But one of the most effective ways that libraries can encourage reading is through a timeless service: directing patrons to reading materials they want. As libraries reach broader audiences through a shift towards community engagement, their ability to help communities find the intersection of reading and technology will become critical to re-establishing the habit of reading.

In NPR’s article on the return of serialized fiction, University of Virginia publishing expert Jane Friedman suggests that efforts to preserve habitual and deep reading in the digital age are hopeful. She says, “Most authors I talk to — and even Amazon — have said that every time they do a serial they make at least half their money on then selling the whole thing together as a bundle.” Despite starting life as shorter bits of text, published series are still consumed en masse. Perhaps this reveals a basic fact about habits: repetition is key. Fifteen minutes of reading a day has the potential to become 20, then 30 and so on. Technology is not the death of deep reading. By making a few small, conscious efforts to use technology as a means towards reading more, we can re-establish a reading culture in the digital age.

Emilie Hancock is Content and Media Editor at BiblioLabs, the creators of BiblioBoard. She is the founder of Books Unbound, a literacy program for incarcerated teens in South Carolina. She lives with her husband and their two bossy dogs, and is a patron of the Charleston County Public Library.

This piece originally appeared on No Shelf Required.