Why read books, in this day and age? “Haven’t we all secretly sort of come to an agreement, in the last year or two or three, that novels belonged to the age of newspapers and are going the way of newspapers, only faster?” wrote Jonathan Franzen, tongue firmly in cheek, in a 2010 essay. The comment feels trenchant a decade later, in an era marked by a saturation of streaming platforms, short-form video, podcasts and screen adaptations of said podcasts.
The proportion of non-readers in Australia has grown in recent years: results of the 2021 National Reading Survey found that 25% of people reported not reading a single book in the previous year – up from 8% in a 2017 survey.
Any bibliophile can easily rattle off a list of reasons for reading. Books enlighten and challenge us, they transport us to different worlds, they reflect essential truths about the human condition.
“People who read well and read a lot learn more, pick up more general knowledge … and can then be better critical consumers of what they read,” says Prof Pamela Snow, co-director of the Science of Language and Reading lab at La Trobe University.
So, within our busy lives, how do we better find the time for books? How can we get more out of the reading experience?
We commonly interact with texts in different modes. In skimming through an article, taking in a few lines – a headline and subheadings, for example – we might gain a general but shallow understanding of its meaning. We also scan texts for specific numbers, names, or ideas – a quantity in a recipe, say.
Then there’s deep reading, what the scholars Dr Maryanne Wolf and Dr Mirit Barzillai define as “the array of sophisticated processes that propel comprehension and that include inferential and deductive reasoning, analogical skills, critical analysis, reflection, and insight. The expert reader needs milliseconds to execute these processes; the young brain needs years to develop them.”
Reading on screens has turned us into adept text skimmers. An influential 2005 study that analysed how reading behaviour had changed over the previous decade – coinciding with the global rise of the internet – found that online reading was characterised by “more time spent on browsing and scanning, keyword spotting, [and] one-time reading … while less time is spent on in-depth reading, and concentrated reading”.
“Readers must engage in an active construction of meaning, in which they grapple with the text and apply their earlier knowledge as they question, analyse, and probe,” she and Barzillai have suggested. One technique for in-depth reading of narrative texts is RIDA: to Read, Imagine the scene, Describe it to yourself, and Add more mental detail by noting powerful imagery or salient passages.
Physical books, rather than devices like smartphones, tend to support more focused reading, says Baron, though she says the choice of medium is ultimately a matter of personal preference.
Screens themselves are not inherently detrimental to our ability to focus, says the head of the visual and cognitive neuroscience laboratory at the University of Melbourne, Prof Trichur Vidyasagar.
“People often have the belief, particularly concerned parents, that if you spend too much time on screen devices your concentration may get poorer. That’s not necessarily true,” he says. “If used correctly and not at the cost of other useful activities, they can greatly benefit learning.”
The key is the internet’s boundless potential for distraction. “When you use the screen, there are so many hyperlinks, so many sites, stories, and rabbit holes to go into,” Vidyasagar says. The temptation to multitask – “an illusory myth,” he says – can be hard to resist. “If you think you’re multitasking, what you’re actually doing is switching between two tasks at a rapid rate, and your performance in both goes down.”
“When you read a [physical] book it’s quite different – you can’t get distracted as easily.”
Research in university students has found that comprehension is generally higher for print reading. “There is something about reading digitally that seemingly increases the speed at which students move through the text and this processing time translates into reduced comprehension,” one study found. “The findings are especially true when you’re talking about longer materials,” Baron says, adding as a caveat that research tends to focus on academic rather than leisure reading.
Results seem to differ slightly for dedicated e-reader devices. One study, in which participants read a 28-page mystery story by Elizabeth George either in print or on a Kindle, found no differences in most standard comprehension measures. The print readers, however, were better at reconstructing the plot and chronological aspects of the story – potentially because “the physical substrate of paper provides material placeholders” for events within the story.
Rediscovering joy and meaning
Dr Judith Seaboyer, formerly a senior lecturer in literary studies at the University of Queensland, who retired last May, recently went through a fiction dry spell. “There’s so much good stuff to listen to [on the radio], so much good journalism out there to read, and I was finding that I wasn’t reading novels any more.”
“As somebody … who’s done a PhD in contemporary literary fiction, and taught it for over 20 years – you think I’d know [reading books] is worth doing.”
What broke Seaboyer out of her slump was reading new work by an author she loves – Ali Smith’s Companion Piece. Synthesising ideas and making comparisons across multiple texts is also a known strategy for deepening reading comprehension, so some might find it helpful to dig into multiple books by the same author.
Seaboyer’s advice is to read with curiosity and to carefully consider an author’s choices, which can lead to a deeper understanding of language, characters and plot. “Jot things down, annotate your book, write things in the margin,” she says. “Some publishers are putting out reading guides now – that’s often quite useful.”
Nabokov believed that “One cannot read a book: one can only reread it”. For him, revisiting books – like the process of regarding a painting – meant the mind first “takes in the whole picture and then can enjoy its details”.
“You [might] remember that you really loved reading Austen,” Seaboyer says. “It’s interesting to be thinking as you read … now that I’m older and wiser, am I seeing any of this any differently than I did when I was 18?”
“There are ways to be kind to yourself, to allow yourself the opportunity not to understand something the first time through, or to say … maybe there’s a different book I should read first,” Baron says. “It’s like reading James Joyce: if you want to start with Ulysses, good luck. If you start with A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, you’ll have a better shot at working your way in.”
If reading solely for pleasure, abandoning books that are not bringing enjoyment could, in fact, increase reading time. Of frequent readers surveyed in 2021 – those who consumed at least one book a month – 54% reported not finishing a book if they disliked it. As a result, they “move[d] on more quickly to the next book for greater enjoyment … and have fewer and shorter gaps between books”.
For those wanting to read more – for relaxation or self-improvement – Baron suggests committing to short but regular periods of reading, similar to time set aside for exercise or meditation.
The speed question
Some people are naturally fast readers – celebrated academic Harold Bloom claimed to be able to read 1,000 pages an hour in his prime. Most adults, according to 2019 analysis, read English nonfiction silently at a rate of between 175 and 300 words a minute, and fiction at a rate of 200 to 320.
While speed reading techniques or apps may seem alluring for the time poor, they’re unlikely to work without compromising understanding.
“Fast readers are not necessarily better at reading comprehension,” Vidyasagar says.
There are no shortcuts to reading faster. Becoming a better reader requires persistence and “dealing with the frustration at not seeing overnight results”, Snow says. “It’s like any skill – learning a musical instrument, learning to drive a car.”
A 2016 review of the science of reading found that reading can be improved in the same way all other skills are developed: through practice. “The way to maintain high comprehension and get through text faster is to practise reading and to become a more skilled language user.”
“If two goals of reading might be to learn for the long haul, and to think – that may be part of enjoyment, that may be part of learning – then what’s the hurry?” Baron says. “Why are we feeling like the White Rabbit?”
For Seaboyer, reading a good book is akin to a meditative experience . The “wonderful, immersive process that is deep reading” reliably brings her pleasure. “Something else is picking you up, and moving your mind and body and soul into a different space so you can think about the world differently.”