Distributed reading: Literary reading in diverse environments

Research output: Contribution to specialist publicationArticle

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Reading has always been a contentious and political practice, but this is heightened in the contemporary moment both because of the way the environments in which we read are changing so radically. For Katherine Hayles reading is “a powerful technology for reconfiguring activity patterns in the brain” [Hayles 2010, 193], a view representative of attempts to connect the new neuroscience of reading with age old practices of literary endeavour. For Sven Birkerts, however, “the Internet and the novel are opposites” [Birkerts 2010], a view that suggests that a hierarchy of reading that locks digital readers out of higher order thinking and literary experience. Meanwhile, Anne Mangen finds that electronic reading environments “negatively affect emotional aspects of reading” [Mangen 2016]. But these approaches tend to understand reading as something static that occurs in one space or another. However, in practice our reading is increasingly distributed. Reading can occur in multiple formats, across multiple platforms for the one text or reading experience. A novel begun in print can be read online in a born-digital format and concluded in a scanned digital format, for example. These journeys across platform require deeper investigation. If we think of the printed book as an interface between two orders of thinking, we need to consider how the experience of reading a digitized version of a formerly printed and bound book alters literary reception and student experience. How does the experience of reading across different technological platforms change the reader’s relationship to the content? As more and more electronic reading platforms take on the physical attributes of material reading experiences either by retaining material traces or by emulating them, we might question what experience How do the material traces left on digitised works impact the reading process for reading in literary studies? The lively discourse surrounding Google Books and the human breaches of the material into the immaterial, as the work crosses the borders of formats and interfaces, raises valuable questions about the future of the book, reading in the twenty-first century, and the long and formidable shadow that centuries of material text production casts over Google Books’ electronic utopia. This paper uses both book history and new media interface theory to consider the multitude of diverse experiences that is literary reading across different platforms in and out of the classroom and to consider whether distracted reading can be better understood as distributed reading. It considers critical infrastructure studies as a useful framework through which to think about reading in the digital age.

Original languageEnglish
Specialist publicationDHQ: Digital Humanities Quarterly
PublisherThe Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations
Publication statusPublished - 2018


  • Reading
  • Digital age
  • digital humanities


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