Reading Analog in a Digital World by Matt Renwick
Our family was preparing for a day trip to the Wisconsin Dells. There was some reading time available during our trek – my wife agreed to drive home – so I packed the following reading material: Paperback copies of The Writer’s Guide to Persistence by Jordan Rosenfeld and The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, a printed draft of the first four chapters of my upcoming book that was sorely in need of revision, notebooks and pens for responding to my reading or jotting down thoughts, and a couple of our kids’ chapter books in case they wanted whoever was not driving to read aloud to them. It was good to have options.
I also brought along my laptop, my Kindle Fire, and my iPhone. My reading life is a blend of the analog and the digital. I regularly read and respond to many forms of digital media. Twitter is my main source for educational news and resources, something I check daily on my laptop. I also stay connected with colleagues through other social media such as Google+, Facebook, and Voxer, mostly via iPhone. In addition, I have multiple digital subscriptions to news outlets such as The New York Times and The Washington Post. My Kindle Fire is my preferred news reading device. For longer trips, I will sometimes download an audiobook on my iPhone through the Audible app. This is all reading, right?
However, these technologies stayed put for the most part during our day trip. I think I was drawn to the geography of the texts, something I could hold in my hands, as much as the content. As someone who embraces technology, I was once surprised at my penchant for print material in my reading life. Two realizations helped me confirm what I may have already known about my preferences. The first was when I completed my Goodreads reading goal last year. I briefly analyzed my list for any patterns or trends (I know: “Relax a bit Matt!”). What I discovered was that the majority of the books I read were in print. They were purchased from various booksellers, borrowed from a friend or family member, or checked out from the public library.
The second realization was when I discovered an article, ironically on Twitter, that highlights research about how college students’ writing is impacted by the texts they read. For those who primarily read more complex texts, such as literary fiction, research, and general nonfiction, students’ writing showed higher levels of vocabulary use and depth of understanding about the topic. For those who primarily read short forms of text, including brief news articles and online posts, their writing seemed to reflect this lower-level content. We have known for a while about the reading-writing connection, and how one area directly impacts the other. What the study suggests is that what we read and how deeply we are able to read it may have a larger impact on one’s writing than writing instruction and writing frequency. So why does this happen? According the authors of the study:
“Your reading brain senses a cadence that accompanies more complex writing, which your brain then seeks to emulate when writing.”
These rhythms in our reading experiences are hard to come by within the furious stream of tweets, posts, and comments. That said, I am not giving up all of my digital connections in my reading life. Life would be a more lonely experience without the smart thinking and communications shared by others online. At the same time, I have made efforts to embrace a bit of solitude. I invested in a nice laser printer for printing off articles I might find online to read more closely. If I find a novel I might want to read on Amazon, I’ll download the sample to check it out, but most likely will order the hard copy although it is twice as much. I even rearranged my writing room to reflect a more Walden-esque environment.
That brown chair has become a popular location for all of my family members, cats included. I think the solitude that it invites harkens back to a time before ubiquitous technology, when we could be alone with our thoughts and feelings. For example, when reading literary fiction, we can reside in the characters and the story. This deep reading is a form of escapism, but in the best sense. Through others’ experiences, we come to know ourselves better and show more empathy for others. Deep reading in print can benefit our literacy lives, analog and digital.
Matt Renwick is a 17-year public educator who began as a 5th and 6th grade teacher. After seven years of teaching, he served as a dean of students, assistant principal and athletic director before becoming an elementary principal in Wisconsin Rapids. Matt is now an elementary principal for the Mineral Point Unified School District (http://mineralpointschools.org/). Matt tweets @ReadByExample and writes for ASCD (www.ascd.org) and Lead Literacy (www.leadliteracy.com).