Susan E. Cook: Deep Reading the Victorians (Part 3 of 3)

Susan E. Cook, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor of English

Southern New Hampshire University

In Part 1 and Part 2 of this post I described Nicholas Carr’s argument about digital vs. print reading, and described my own experience reading East Lynne using a nineteenth-century print edition rather than a more contemporary edition. It is my sense that Carr flattens out the print/digital reading question by treating each more or less monolithically, describing print reading as “deep” reading and digital as “shallow.”


I am currently teaching a class on the history of the book, so I decided to bring this question to my students, asking them to complete a weekly Bleak House reading assignment by a) reading one chapter via our contemporary Penguin Classics edition, b) reading one chapter online or using an e-reader, and c) reading one chapter from one of the three first editions owned by our university. I asked the students to write up their thoughts on this exercise and I include excerpts from their responses here.  To begin with, all of the students who responded report that the printed Penguin edition was the baseline or “favorite” version. The font, they report, is “easy to read and is organized nice and straight on the pages.” It is also “convenient,” writes another student, “in the sense that most of my classmates are reading the same edition” and due to the notes, which help develop an “understanding of the context of the text and some of the more obscure terms.” Yet the book is physically difficult due to its size, they note universally: one student apparently weighed the book and concluded that it is “closer to 2lbs. than 1, which can be quite exhausting on the wrist and hand to read”; it is “difficult to fold the binding to a comfortable position.”


Digital reading experiences of the text seemed to be off-putting. One student read a chapter on a Kindle Fire, and reported that reading off the screen made it harder to concentrate on reading, and “I also found myself not being able to read as long as I had been able to do with both the physical copies of the novel.” Other students read a chapter online through Project Gutenberg and disliked the experience: “Interacting with a long text through an internet browser,” writes one student, “is cumbersome, clunky, a strain on the eyes, and disconnects me from the text.” “One of my first thoughts while reading,” writes another, “was, I don’t know what to do with my hands.” In addition, “the editor organized the text into neat paragraphs with a significant amount of white space between each paragraph. These white spaces made me want to stop reading after every paragraph and allowed my mind to wander slightly. I found myself sending an email after a couple of paragraphs.” While the students who read a chapter on Project Gutenberg noted that reading online was not necessarily comparable to using an e-reader, the e-reader was likewise different than reading the novel in print: one student wrote that she did not like that it was nearly impossible “to underline and take comprehendible notes on this device.”


I was surprised by the range of responses I received when it came to the first edition. The responses were divided: some felt the nineteenth-century edition of the novel helped them feel more absorbed by the plot while others felt the materiality of this edition got in the way and distracted them from the novel. “Interestingly,” writes one student of her experience reading the first edition, “I found it easier for myself to lose awareness of the physical world around me and concentrate deeper on the novel. I felt a connection with people who read this novel almost 200 years ago. It is one of the most authentic experiences that a contemporary scholar can have with a text.” This appeal to authenticity and scholarship is an interesting one. If a historical edition gives one an authentic reading experience unmatched by a contemporary edition, it would seem that such authenticity is indeed, as this student suggests, reserved for scholars and those with access to these texts.


Conversely, other students felt the first edition reading experience was a bit distracting. “The physicality of the book was too much present,” wrote one student, “and trumped the content of the story itself.” This student allowed that this might not be the case if one were actually in the nineteenth century because “You’d be used to this format and your edition would also be new, not like the delicate old thing I was handling. Reading something from an archive makes you painfully aware that the object is both not your own and needs to be handled with care.” Indeed, another student likewise felt the need “to be very attentive because of the age of the text and how fragile the book physically was.”


Finally, a couple of students opted to add a fourth reading mode and listened to the audiobook version of the novel. This worked for one student as long as she read along in her Penguin edition. However, “because I felt the need to keep up with the reader that gave me less time to think about what I was actually reading. Therefore, I think that listening to an audiotape was detrimental to my critical thinking.” Furthermore, this student then tried listening to the novel without the printed text and wrote, “This proved to have zero effect on me. I could not follow along with the story when I sat there just listening.”


Overwhelmingly, the students seemed to prefer reading Bleak House using the format with which they were most comfortable: the contemporary print edition. The special status of the first edition gave one student a heightened sense of concentration “possibly because of its ‘magic’ and history,” but this same aura was distracting for others. The digital and audio versions received mixed reviews.  While this experiment cannot hope to replicate a truly authentic nineteenth-century reading occurrence, it highlights the degree to which the different forms of a book can impact one’s experience of that book. While one student summarizes the respondents’ shared belief that “it is important to have a physical connection with a book (holding a book and turning the pages) in order to have a mental connection with its content,” it is clear that material differences between print editions impact the reading experience greatly and inconsistently. The conditions of deep reading, in other words, seem predicated on comfort, habit, and a complex sense of how one relates to the material text itself.

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