Mechanical Dances

Reflective reading in the digital age

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When printed books, magazines, and newspapers were central to our media culture in the twentieth century, there were clearly many different practices of reading (and writing). Huge literate populations (approaching 100% in the developed world) had different tastes and needs and read in all kinds of environments, superficially or carefully, quickly or at leisure. Yet those who fear the loss of print now seem to regard as essential one kind: contemplative or close reading. Reflective reading is a practice of amateurs, of lovers of books, who envision reading under a tree, in silent conversation with the author. “Close reading,” the professional scholar’s equivalent of reflective reading,

Because social media combine text, images, audio, and video and present themselves to each in multiple windows and dynamic, they invite the user to what Maria Engberg characterizes as a polyaesthetic form of reading. The critics of social media are right in insisting on the “superficiality” of polyaesthetic reading. Their mistake is to think that polyaesthetic reading replaces reflective reading. Their favored form of reading will not disappear, as long as the (traditional) literary community continues to practice it. But it can no longer constitute a cultural ideal of reading, to which everyone must or should aspire.

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