Reading is Reflective

Reading is Reflective

I am often asked and often write and speak about the differences between reading and other forms of media – especially television and video games. Typically this conversation becomes a discussion of the differences between passive and active media. Thus…

– Television is passive. Thus the classic couch potato vegetative look.

[Caveat: The truth is, as Steven Johnson so ably explains in Everything Bad is Good for You (2005), television has gotten a lot more stimulating. But it’s still passive.]

– Film is passive. Perhaps more dynamic and enticing. Although since so much film is watched on computer screens this difference is mitigated. But it’s still passive. You sit back, enjoy your popcorn, and let the film do it’s (considerable) thing.

– Video Games are interactive. Low grade ‘educational’ games are not. Not really. Click the birdie – watch the computer do something. But today’s video games for teens and adults are very interactive. There’s no denying this. Steven Johnson is very strong on this. You have to learn to navigate each environment and interface. Most games demand a lot of thinking and challenge you to solve problems. This is not the same thing as being active. But it certainly does stimulate your brain, and entertain you, and helps train you to form and test and reject and reform hypotheses. That is certainly why they’re so dang popular.

– Reading is…what? It is passive when the “listener” just sits there and takes it all in. It is ‘active’ for the reader as your mind must conjure…everything. The author provides text and description and setting and narrative. But the action doesn’t just happen in front of you. You can’t read in a vegetative state. You must use your active imagination. You must conjure, conjure, conjure! You decide what the characters look like. The settings – the rooms and landscape and settings. Your active imagination must be the director fleshing out the narrative ‘film’ in your mind provided by the author. Reading is definitely active. And all this is true for the listener, too. A child listening still has to conjure what the giant or the dragon or Voldemort looks like. What it’s like to enter Narnia. What Farmer Zuckerman’s barn smells like. Listening is active, too!

OK. I’ve actually said all this before. But I want to add one more dimension. (Or re-phrase something I’ve said before.)

I recently read Nick Harkaway’s stimulating book on “How to Be Human in the Digital World.” It’s called The Blind Giant (2012). This was for an annual presentation I make to middle schoolers on how to use their computers and the Internet responsibly. (I ask them to learn to be “masters of the medium.”)

Harkaway does a thought experiment. He asks, What if reading was a new technology? What if we all grew up with digital and video and computer entertainment – and then books were invented? What would we say about them? Would they be rejected and criticized for being boring, flat, passive, not interactive enough?

Maybe. But Harkaway suggests – or reiterates – that reading has something that none of those ‘pre-existing’ contemporary media have. Reading is reflective!

When you are reading you’re actually having an internal dialogue. With yourself. With the author. Maybe with the characters. And with the entire corpus of what you’ve read before. Easier with fiction – but very true for non-fiction, too. Your mind is multi-tasking. Taking in narrative. Being entertained. Reacting emotionally, psychologically. Anticipating what might happen next. And being critical: judging, admiring, criticizing, comparing.

That is high-order stuff. And sometimes it blows over and you actually have to stop and think about it. You ‘hit the Pause button.’ Maybe you jot an idea down. (Maybe you text it to a friend, or Tweet an apercu or epiphany, or just make a note to yourself.) Maybe you just stop and think for a moment. Maybe you take a walk. But you necessarily pause and let yourself think about what you’re reading, how you feel about it, what makes you happy or mad, how it might change your opinion or grow, what you want to tell your friend about how much it makes you angry or ‘you gotta read this!’ or ‘i just read the funniest thing…’ You reflect.

All media are shareable. But only reading not only demands and insists on reflection. And only reading makes it so easy to reflect. As a technology it is much easier to detach yourself from it to do actual reflecting. We all know how great it feels to want nothing more than to return to our book. In that sense reading is…addictive. But reading has an automatic and much more accessible Pause Button that enables reflection. Yes – I’ve said it a million times before – you can pause your film or video or game – but who does? Hardly ever.

Reading stimulates a broader array of stuff in your ever developing brain because it’s not passive. It’s active, but not just active. It’s reflective. It allows – nay, it impels – you to think beyond the medium. It asks and allows and enables you not only to imagine – but to associate and compare and analyze and assess. It allows you to reflect.

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