Go Away. I’m Reading.

December 30, 2012 — 2 Comments

Perhaps you received a book this past holiday, or perhaps you had some time to catch up on book you have been waiting to read. You might need one of these signs:

Why might you need a “Go Away. I’m Reading” sign? Because reading is often interrupted by people. The sign could stop those interruptions by others that inevitably occur at a critical moment in a book or article. You would use the sign to ward off those who are blind to the obvious and ask, “What are you doing?” You might even use the sign to stymie those who intrude to ask, “What are you reading?” But you would most certainly wave the sign to stop those who interrupt to ask, “Is what you’re doing so important?”

Reading is a very quiet, sedentary activity, an activity that requires concentration. You cannot multi-task reading. An interruption in that concentration disrupts comprehension, and there are studies that look to measure the effects of interruptions on comprehension. There was the 2002 study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill titled, “The Effect of Interruption on Working Memory During Discourse Processing ” by Kerry Ledoux and Peter C. Gordon.

Ledoux and Gordon conducted separate experiments using the same narrative and expository passages, but they varied who read the narrative and who read the narrative and expository passages. They gathered evidence to prove that comprehension of similar (narrative) passages was more disrupted by interruption in the first experiment, and than with dissimilar (narrative/expository) passages  in the second experiment:

This supports the notion that the maintenance of text information in working memory is affected by interruption. Second, we found that the initial reading of the second passage in a pair is disrupted more if the first passage in the pair is of a similar type than if it is of a dissimilar type.

Their two experiments looked directly at the systems of language processing necessary for comprehension:

 Our results support the view of the role of working memory in language processing as a system whose function comprises the creation and maintenance of an elaborate, semantic representation of a text and the efficient retrieval of this representation from long-term memory.

They determined that interruptions had an adverse impact on the role of working memory, but could not determine the magnitude of these interruptions because of differences in texts.

Another more recent study concluded that visual clues are helpful to resume reading after an interruption. An abstract from the 2012 study by JE Cane, F Couchard, and UW Weger from the University of Kent, UK titled, “The Time-Course of Recovery from Interruption During Reading: Eye Movement Evidence for the Role of Interruption Lag and Spatial Memory” centered on the impotence of visual cues. Locating where one stopped reading is important to recovering comprehension:

Two experiments examined how interruptions impact reading and how interruption lags and the reader’s spatial memory affect the recovery from such interruptions. Participants read paragraphs of text and were interrupted unpredictably by a spoken news story while their eye movements were monitored. Time made available for consolidation prior to responding to the interruption did not aid reading resumption. However, providing readers with a visual cue that indicated the interruption location did aid task resumption substantially.

Predictably, cuing the place where the interruption took place is helpful to comprehension, but there is also considerably conversation about the amount of time it takes a reader to return to a full involvement with a text. Consider that research in the business communities has determined that many interruptions are costly and hurt business productivity. A 2005 NYTimes Magazine article by Clive Thompson titled Meet the Life Hackers  described a study by Gloria Mark, a professor at the University of California at Irvine. Mark looked at interruptions in the average 21st Century office worker. She developed a series of timed tasks that mimic work in the business day. Her research was organized so that,

 Each employee spent only 11 minutes on any given project before being interrupted and whisked off to do something else. What’s more, each 11-minute project was itself fragmented into even shorter three-minute tasks, like answering e-mail messages, reading a Web page or working on a spreadsheet. And each time a worker was distracted from a task, it would take, on average, 25 minutes to return to that task.

Although 25 minutes may not be the same amount of time required for the average reader to return to a text, Mark’s research does demonstrate the serious loss of time interruptions cause to work productivity. If one of these activities involved reading, then reading productivity was adversely effected.

One other interesting view on uninterrupted reading has been offered by the Telecommunications Information Networking Architecture Consortium (TINAC). In 1988, they published a “manifesto” on writing hypertext, those texts that feature embedded links for the reader. What is surprising is how they began the “manifesto” by focusing not on the writing of such texts starting from the reading of such texts.  Their first statement:

I) No interruptions.

Reading should be a seamless and uninterrupted experience. Its choices proceed from the expression of possibilities as a narrative medium and depend upon the complicity of the reader in the creation of a narrative. Reading is design enacted.

Reading is “design enacted”, meaning that even the distractions in hypertexts are meant to be done in a sitting without distractions, without interruption.

Ultimately, conveying the importance of uninterrupted reading may be necessary. But if the little sign, “Go Away. I’m Reading.” doesn’t work, you might want to try other strategies. A quick survey on the Internet reveals available like-minded products.

There are plans for free “Go Away. I’m Reading” Book Covers in several different styles. There are also “Go Away. I’m Reading” coffee mugs handy for uninterrupted newspaper reading in the morning.

However, the ultimate solution may still be the most simple: find a quiet spot in the house, and lock the door.

2 responses to Go Away. I’m Reading.


    The quiet place in the house and a lock on the door never fails. Better still, LEAVE the house and go somewhere you’re family isn’t likely to follow/ interrupt you. I do.


    Reading in the car, parked in the driveway, can be a great spot.

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