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This content is taken from the University of Basel's online course, Literature in the Digital Age: from Close Reading to Distant Reading. Join the course to learn more.

Skip to 0 minutes and 7 seconds Welcome back. One of the first things to consider when we ask ourselves how we read literature in the digital age is to ask what media we use when we read literature. I’ll devote a whole week of this course to the question of the materiality of communication, that is, the question of how the physical qualities, the internal structures and technological operations of various media affect us in different ways. For now, let me just draw your attention to the objects that lie here on this table. There’s a print book, a tablet computer, an ebook reader, and a smartphone. These are some of the major media in which many of us read literary texts today.

Skip to 1 minute and 4 seconds And the question I have when I look at these different media

Skip to 1 minute and 7 seconds is this: what difference does it make whether I read, say, a short story, a novel in a print book, on a tablet computer, an ebook reader, or a smartphone? Let’s start with the most traditional reading medium, the print book. When we read literature in a hardback or a paperback edition, we usually withdraw to immerse ourselves in the text’s fictional world. And we withdraw ourselves not only in our homes, but also in public spaces. We do not interrupt someone who is reading a novel on the train.

Skip to 1 minute and 53 seconds Things are different if you read your literary text on a tablet computer.

Skip to 2 minutes and 8 seconds Often this is still solitary reading, as with a print book, but it’s a very different kind of solitary reading that has a different kind of rhythm, especially when your tablet is hooked up to the internet. Chances are that if you read a novel or a short story on a tablet, your reading will be more frequently interrupted, be it because you feel a sudden urge to go on Facebook, or check your mail, or because your novel is set in Brooklyn, and you want to see some photographs of Brooklyn to get a better sense of the place.

Skip to 2 minutes and 45 seconds In either case, our immersion in the fictional world is interrupted and as we return to the literary texts, the images and texts we’ve seen on Facebook or Google Images will shape our reading experience. Things are different yet again with ebook readers.

Skip to 3 minutes and 12 seconds Here the text is cut up into smaller chunks, and page numbers are irrelevant because the text is what is called reflowable, to allow for the use of the same text on multiple devices. Ebook readers also have a tendency to tell you how much time, how many hours and minutes you have left till you finish the novel, and at least one ebook reader tells you which passages other readers have found most interesting. And of course with an ebook reader, you can carry thousands of books with you. How do these things affect our reading experience? Consider, finally, reading a novel or a short story on a smartphone.

Skip to 4 minutes and 1 second Well, not many people really read novels on smartphones, simply because the chunks of text are so small that it becomes cumbersome. So the smartphone seems more suitable for shorter texts, such as short stories and poems, Twitter poems, for instance. In comparison with the ebook our mobility is further increased, but so are the chances that we’re distracted, say, by a phone call or a text message. So clearly, then, reading literary texts in different media means reading literary texts differently. We could even say that it means reading a different literary text. And one of the questions that we’ll keep coming back throughout the course

Skip to 4 minutes and 48 seconds is this: what different cognitive and social effects do different reading media have on us?

How do we read today? Offline and online, print book and ebook

Reading always also implies the use of a specific medium of reading. Whether it is a print book, a laptop, an ebook reader, a tablet, or a smartphone – the technological possibilities of the medium fundamentally shape our reading experience; and this has far-reaching cognitive and social effects.

As the lively pre-course discussion on the Welcome Page has shown, many of you read literature not just in one medium but in at least two. In our learning community, ebook readers and print books seem to be the favorite reading media. A sizeable minority has abandoned reading print books altogether, be it for reasons of space, mobility, or money. A majority treasures print books for their sensuous and aesthetic qualities, valuing their look, touch, and smell. In this video, Philipp Schweighauser briefly touches on some of the material qualities and different social and cognitive effects of different reading media. Week 6 of this course will be devoted entirely to this topic.

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This video is from the free online course:

Literature in the Digital Age: from Close Reading to Distant Reading

University of Basel