What happens when we read?

As you are reading this blog, you understand the meaning in part because I’m leading you – I have an idea in mind and I’m structuring my words and sentences in a way that asks your brain to follow a logical strand of thought. But you are also bringing in your own associations. If you know me personally, our experiences together are probably affecting your interpretation, or if you are in class with me, your knowledge of the prompt for this blog and your own experiences with our reading assignments are affecting your interpretation.

Further, as Maryanne Wolf points out, individual words lend themselves to associative interpretation. She uses the example of the word “bug” – when you read that word, you probably think of a crawling creature, but “also the bug’s less frequent associations – spies, Volkswagens, and glitches in software” (Proust and the Squid, 9).

The point is that context is incredibly important when we read; this idea builds arguments for reader-response theory, where the reader’s past experiences and unique interpretations contribute to creating the “meaning” of a text.

This is not a new concept, but it is interesting when we start to think about digital literacy. In his essay, “Breaking all the rules:

and the aesthetics of online space,” Michael Gold explains that web designers emphasize nonlinear design because it’s better suited for online spaces. A website can do a lot more than present a linear block of text for you to read – there can be images and hyperlinks, which leads to a more interactive experience. Gold argues that the nonlinearity of the web may mimic the nonlinearity of our associative thinking patterns by pointing to William James and stream of consciousness. (From A to , p. 125-149)

So does this mean there is a new kind of nonlinear reading on the horizon? Personally, I’m not ready to give up linear structures in my reading or in my writing, but there does seem to be a connection between the nonlinear nature of web-reading and the way our brains work.

In “Wiring a Usable Center” (1998), Stuart Blythe offers an interesting contribution to this idea by arguing that usability research methods (the kind of user-experience research that companies do when designing a website) mirror writing center pedagogy because both aim to empower the user (Wiring the Writing Center, 103-116).

Even if we don’t want to accept or encourage nonlinear reading, I think we can agree that our concept “reading” is changing, and there may be things writing instructors can learn from web designers.

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