In this post, Professor Helen Lovatt, of the Department of Classics and Archaeology at the University of Nottingham, shares a wonderful personal reflection on her evolving approach to reading and how a variety of technologies have helped (and sometimes hindered) her ability to engage with texts. We’ll be discussing some of these issues at our upcoming workshop, Reading Classics Online, which is taking place on 15th May (register at this link). Unfortunately, Helen isn’t able to attend, but she shared this post with us to help generate a conversation. We welcome other contributions!
I don’t read like I used to. I think this might give an interesting perspective on changing ways of reading, what counts as reading, and how different types of reading can work.
I’ve got an eye condition called retinitis pigmentosa, which means bits of my retina are going a funny colour and ceasing to work. It eats away at the peripheral vision and then takes chunks out of the central vision too, as well as creating flashing lights, blurry bits, and making you prone to other problems such as cataracts. I was always very short-sighted, so the combination means that some years back I discovered I couldn’t read print books very easily or for very long.
I used to read extremely fast (for instance, a Terry Pratchett book in two hours). I would take off my glasses, immerse myself completely and be away with the fairies, uncontactable. I think I probably took in lines or even sentences at a time, and also skipped/skimmed bits I was finding less enjoyable. My husband complained that I missed key plot points.
Another complication is that I think I may have ADHD. I’ve been learning about it, partly to support students, partly to support my daughter who is in the process of attempting to get a diagnosis. I have days when I struggle to concentrate, particularly when tired, and when I read a sentence over and over again without it making any sense to me, and become unreasonably irritated by anything too slow, or irrelevant. I remember as a PhD student reading a book that was tangentially relevant to my project, all the way through, every word, conscientiously, and feeling that this process nearly killed me. I also remember being very shocked by a student who said he never finished a book, just read bits and pieces here and there.
I used to do a lot of skim reading in my academic work, to figure out which were the really relevant parts, and only read those, while developing a decent general feel for the rest of the material. I can’t do that now. Some things now take me so long, that I’ve had to stop doing them (editing volumes, refereeing edited collections). Marking student work also feels like a glacial process. Reading a physical book for leisure is usually not possible, unless it happens to be large print and relatively short (some children’s/YA is readable).
First I moved to reading on the kindle, which was much liked reading hard copy, except I could highlight and annotate in line rather than keeping separate notes. Then my eyes found even that too tiring. So I now move between on-screen, very enlarged; searching; and audio.
Searching allows me to replicate something of the skim-reading experience. I get hold of a searchable electronic copy (frustratingly I often need to acquire multiple copies of books in different formats, especially to get page numbers for referencing, but I can get many audio books for free from the RNIB, and borrow many pdfs from The Internet Archive), pick my search terms, go through looking at each in context. I usually do this after reading some of the book in other ways (beginnings and ends, contents, index). This allows me to find relevant parts that I can read in detail.
Audio is the best way of reading a complete text. I can either use an audio book, or various screen reading programmes (Pdf read aloud, Word’s immersive reader). Audio books, whether produced by actors or authors themselves or amateur readers, are often excellent audio performances. I have favourite readers now. Word’s immersive reader is now bearably natural sounding, and reads Latin as either Italian, French or English (mildly entertaining).
I’ve discovered that audio helps a lot with my concentration problems. I can either walk and listen at the same time, remembering my notes and thoughts either by using the app Brain Toss (records an audio note and emails it to you), or just repeating them to myself until I get home and write them down. Or I can listen while doing something around the house (sorting washing, cooking, washing up). If I do something with my hands, it deals with the problem of things moving too slowly, and if I need to concentrate fully on an intense or complex bit, then I can stop what I’m doing and fully listen. You can also pick the reading speed.
The audio means I engage much more slowly and on a deeper level with the texts, almost like reading in a different language (translating does this too). I found it frustrating at first, but quickly found I was thinking a lot about the text as I listened, seeing patterns and remembering connections. I find verbal repetitions, for instance, across quite large sections of text, and have no problem finding them either by remembering where they were in the story or searching for individual words.
At that speed, style matters much more. Some writers I cannot bear, and some readers also.
What insight does this give me into learning and reading?
- Everyone is different, and everyone is different at different times and in different states of health. Have a portfolio of techniques to suggest students try.
- Taking in material and engaging with content is not better or worse in one medium or another. Audio is valid. Video is valid. There isn’t something unique about reading a physical book that makes that the only true way of understanding a narrative or an argument.
- Relevance is key. People need to know why they are putting time and effort into getting something into their head.
- Technology is moving fast, and it is necessary to keep trying things, because what felt unbearably annoying last year might be just right this year.
- Short sentences, short paragraphs, clear hooks, bullet points, concision, bolding key words all help to make things easier to read for many different types of people. I’ve learnt a lot from YA literature.