Jan Martinek: words && bytes
interested in understanding

Notes from #ReadingConf19

November 8, 2019

The conference Reading in a Digital Environment in Regensburg just ended, and I sat down in a café at Hauptbahnhof to write down some quick notes.

First of all, thanks to the organizers! I’ve met a lot of new people and attended some great sessions. And, of course, a lot of new questions popped up. Here are some quickly drafted notes.

Paper or display?

As expected, this is the most frequently asked question. Is either of those better than the other? Interestingly, most studies come with a definitive „well, maybe not.“

In most studies, there’s no significant difference in various metrics related to reading. Sometimes there’s some specific difference that can be frequently explained by

This is not to say that these studies are meaningless or saying nothing. Also, these criticisms were frequently addressed in the posters and talks right away. I learned a lot today! (And most of what’s been said supports my focus on the software side of e-reading, so that’s a great validation).

Display or display?

One question kept brewing in me since Anne Mangen’s keynote: is digital/screen really a single medium? We regularly consider cinema and TV to be different media, as the technologies and their social use are different.

However, it’s very much not apparent that the tech behind PDFs, e-readers, or websites is very different. This might be the point that invalidates in extensive measures the conclusions of many talks and posters.

Few people mentioned a distinction between e-ink and the other displays, but again, this notion disregards specific interfaces — buttons/touch, scrolling/jumping, animations, annotation functionalities, typography, etc.

As it is crucial to be careful in assessing how to approach paper/digital in specific uses, I believe it is essential to be much more granular when delineating the media and, therefore, abolish the notion of digital/screen/display media category.

Reading is a lot

This became the second theme of the conference — maybe even overshadowing the first one as the talks continued. Multiple sessions, crowned by the last one, asked what is reading?

On the one hand, it’s good to connect all the dots in the reading puzzle and bring all the concerned experts together. Then again, reading is basically all the stuff you do while you read — e.g., annotating is reading, staring into the ceiling is reading, reading the 135th interesting excerpt aloud to your annoyed roommate is reading, even going to pee is an activity that furthers your reading ability.

This might be an example of conceptual overstretching (for some), but it hammers the point that digital reading serves poorly in many situations. For me, this applied up to this day mostly for niche readers’ needs (e. g. poor annotation capabilities) and reduced social use of books (e. g. browsing friends library), but now I know there’s a lot more that can go wrong.

Always good to learn some new stuff, innit!

People read less

And this is not some general finding — the people who should read the most are reading less. And that’s alarming. The “long long-form” (~novel) is in decline even in an academic setting.

I think this might be attributed to factors such as:

That’s all

Thanks to everybody who dropped by and talked with me about the next-book open web publishing platform (see the poster)! If you’d like to know more, check our website at next-book.info.

If you liked these notes or the poster, maybe subscribe to our newsletter. It’s short (see) and it goes out every other Friday. I’ll compose the next one right after I publish this ☺️.

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