Close Watching: Tech + Text = The Reading Paradigm of the Future?!

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When it comes to good ol’-fashioned reading, the influence of new-fangled technology is rarely construed as “positive.”

A recent Pew Internet Study suggests our that our brains are being “rewired” for attention deficiency by nonstop, rapid-fire access to information. Adbusters’ Micah White accuses the Kindle of “mimicking the external traits of a book while destroying the essence of the book: the trace of the author, the community of readers and the call to deep, meditative reflection.” And according to Nicholas Carr’s infamous polemic in The Atlantic, Google is making us stupid:

“I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading…My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”

But listen up, luddites: it’s not all bad news. Because today I spent two full minutes reading a single sentence. On my computer screen. On the Internet. If that ain’t close reading, I don’t know what is.

The sentence, from Seth Fried’s short story “The Adventure of the Space Traveler,” was animated by Sarah Bodil for Electric Literature‘s ongoing series of Single Sentence Animations. The series “pairs fiction writers with visual artists in order to create a stand-alone work of art,” explains EL editor Benjamin Samuel. “Writers select one sentence from their story and an animator translates the prose into a new medium.”

The animations vary in their approach to incorporating text—some type, some handwrite; some present the whole sentence at once, some piece by piece. In some animations, the text scrolls vertically, like credits; in some, words zing and blur and fade in and out of the frame. In others, like Bodil’s, the letters appear one by one, as though we’re witnessing the very process of creation—the almost-born sentence, just crowning.

“Digital fiction can be complemented by integrated audio and video content, bringing new layers to the prose and taking the reader deeper into that world of fiction,” says Samuel. “The trick is delivering these new layers in a manner than enhances the literature and doesn’t distract readers or disrupt their reading experience.”

It’s a trick the Single Sentence Animations have mastered. Those “new layers” are the polar opposite of distracting or disruptive—instead, they actually force readers to slow down. There’s no Jet Skiing across the surface of these sentences, no skimming or skipping to the end. Sometimes the experience is downright suspenseful—a slow reveal, complete with crescendoing soundtrack—but more often it’s simply meditative, immersive, delicate.

This kind of sentence-level attention is usually reserved for poems, where we’re less likely to be concerned with overarching features like character and plot. But prose—or good prose, anyway—deserves a similarly molecular attentiveness, not just to the sum total of the story but also to its component parts. And so another virtue of the Single Sentence Animations is that sentences are given their due. Honored, pampered, relieved of their context, and handled with care, these lines of prose take on the shimmering quality of lines of poetry.

Speaking of poetry, the folks over at Electric Literature aren’t the only ones redefining the online reading experience by animating text. The slick and functional PoemFlow app, available for iPhone, and as a picture of an iPhone on the PoemFlow website, allows readers to gyroscopically choose between manually scrolling through the full text of a poem or viewing a more gradual line-by-line “flow:”

Via the app, a daily poem “flows to thousands of screens around the world…creating an instant, invisible community of simultaneous readers.” This “invisible community” is made visible by a clever widget that tells users where the poem was last viewed:

This is the coolest feature of PoemFlow. The information changes frequently enough to feel like real time, which in turn makes the “community” feel genuinely dynamic and connected. (It also serves to reassure skeptics that poetry is, in fact, being read by someonesomewhere—and in Glasgow, KY, no less!)

The actual “flow,” though, feels somewhat less dynamic. The website describes said “flow” as “a gentle reading animation,” and if that sounds a bit pale compared to what’s going on over at Electric Literature…well, it is. And PoemFlow’s respectable-but-mostly-run-of-the-mill content, drawn “from a mix of the greatest poems in English” (which are these ones, apparently), does little to augment the “gentle” uniformity of the app’s animated form.

But perhaps it’s not PoemFlow’s fault. Highlighting a single line might be radical in prose, but it’s pretty much a given in the realm of poetry, where the lines are (a) generally fewer, and (b) regularly broken, enjambed, metered, indented, etc. Perhaps the PoemFlow premise is simply redundant—it still slows me down, sure, but its “flow” mode doesn’t really add anything that isn’t already inherent in lineated poetic form.

Or perhaps the nature of apps is too simply gimmicky and limiting. Meanwhile, back in the vast and limitless Internets, “videopoetry” is enshrined as its own genre on Moving Poems, an impressive repository of literary citation, “the best poetry videos on the web,” and academic criticism (the site’s curator, Dave Bonta, delivered a paper entitled “Video Poetry: What Is It, Who Makes It, and Why?” at the 2012 AWP conference). Links in the thoughtful discussion forums posit precursors and subgenres like concrete poetry and kinetic typography, and point outwards towards tangentially related endeavors like Robert Coover’s virtual reality-inspired CaveWriting workshops at Brown.  And yet the definition of “videopoetry” is still very much a work-in-progress, the remote regions of the form still largely unexplored.

In other words, this is exciting stuff. From the crystallized simplicity of the Single Sentence Animations series to the visible-invisibility of PoemFlow’s reader community to the brainy meta-analyses of Moving Poems, it’s clear that Google is no longer just making us stupid. In sufficiently creative hands, the marriage of technology and text might eventually rewire our brains back to paying attention.