Reflections on How to Read: An Example for Computers

While reading, your body naturally adapts to its task.1 Some adaptations are more helpful for longer, more attentive reading periods, some less.

Where you find yourself feeling less well adapted, study of ergonomics can provide guidance to help you imagine what might work better.

The fact that ergonomic advice can be given implies some amount of commonality among human bodies. Yet the details of the ideal support for longer, more attentive reading inevitably prove as varied as human bodies themselves.

So, the adaptations I mention below aren’t suggestions first and foremost. You might find similar adaptations helpful. But even if not, I’m hopeful they’ll provide some examples to help stoke your imagination about what might better support your own reading.

Adaptations Not in Focus

To begin, I should mention two scenarios for reading that I haven’t been focusing on. One is reading physical books; the other is reading on mobile devices.

Each of these ways of reading is important and has various features that merit consideration (e.g., availability of non-reading distractions, ubiquity, backlighting or lack thereof). But here I’ll comment on them only as relates to my own bodily adaptation for the reading task.

Physical Books

When I’m reading a physical book, the manipulability of the physical book proves important. As I need to move to sustain a longer reading session, the book can move with me.

This scenario becomes a bit more challenging when I’m doing a lot of underlining and note making in the book. In this case, the task is part reading, part writing. So, the demands and constraints of writing limit the amount of bodily adaptation I can do to support the reading task.

For instance, when I’m marking in a book, I like the markings to be tidy. So, I typically use a straight edge to guide underlines and print notes in neat blocks in the margins.

All of this means that this task is normally easiest if I’m working at a desk. But even if I’m constrained to working near and around the geometry of a desk, the movability and manipulability of a physical book proves a significant asset in allowing me to sustain longer, more attentive reading sessions.

Mobile Devices

I also do a fair amount of reading on mobile devices. I do this mostly through Logos, but occasionally, I’ll read a Word document or a PDF.

Reading on a mobile device differs in many ways from reading a physical book. A key point of difference from what I’ve mentioned above is the need to type notes rather than hand write them. (So far, I’ve found various handwriting tools for mobile devices overly cumbersome or too expensive to be terribly compelling to try.)

This need to annotate a document through typing creates its own constraints on the reading process. But the movability and manipulability of mobile devices often replicates well that of a physical book. Smaller devices like a phone can even be more mobile and manipulable.

So, mobile devices generally allow a similar range of adaptations in the reading process as do physical books. That range of adaptation helps support longer, more attentive reading sessions.

Reading on a Computer

Reading on a computer provides certain advantages to reading physical books.

Among these are space and organization of resources. Typing notes on a normal-sized keyboard is also easier than it is on mobile devices. And I can easily annotate texts in Logos or, with PDF X-Change, in PDFs as well.

None of those resources take up increasingly limited physical shelf space. And they’re all readily findable within Logos, within Zotero, or with Everything. (For more on these tools, download my toolbox for biblical studies.)

So, for reasons like these, I’m loath to part with reading in this format. Yet reading—or, indeed, doing other work—on computers involves its own distinct physical challenges.

Challenges for Reading at a Computer

Two in particular have started to add up for me.

  1. For many years, when working at a computer, I’ve had the poor habit of slouching over the keyboard. That bodily adaptation makes certain things easier in the moment, but it also has its consequences. Among these are back strain that either requires still further adaptations to overcome or invites the shortening of reading sessions’ length or attentiveness.
  2. One kind of adaptation that I’ve often made in this regard is to stand up. I’m grateful that in both my home and campus offices I have a desk and chair that will accommodate this change. (If you’re curious, the on-campus setup is this desk with this chair.) But standing for even modest periods has begun aggravating some numbness in both of my legs.

So, what I’ve been needing to find is a way to encourage myself to sit back in my chair and make use of its lumbar support to sustain longer reading sessions when at a computer.

Improving Support for Reading at a Computer

I’d been thinking about this dynamic and wishing for a solution for years. But it wasn’t until I came across some (actually) helpful ergonomic advice that ideas for meaningful changes started coming to mind. Among these have been to

  1. Increase the distance between the desktop and my elbows. I’ve done this by increasing the chair height and, in my office on campus, slightly lowering the desk height. This change has two functions. First, it puts my arms into a less cramped relation to the keyboard. And with this larger distance, second, it becomes less uncomfortable to slouch down onto my elbows on the desktop for long periods.
  2. Increase the distance of my monitors from the desktop. I’ve done this just by stacking them atop books I rarely use (on campus) or with a dollar store laptop lift that I’d gotten as gift and a few other things we had around the house (a small serving tray, a small canvas stand and some picture hanging wire). The monitors are now closer to eye height. This change means I can look more straight out at the screen rather than down. Doing so removes the encouragement I previously had to hunch over down toward the monitors and unconsciously encourages me to sit up straighter.
  3. Move my monitors closer to the front of the desk (on campus) or use a USB keyboard with my laptop (at home). These changes mean there’s less space on the top of the desk where I can easily and unthinkingly slouch over. And on campus, moving the monitors closer to the front of the desk also means that they’re uncomfortably close to where my face ends up if I do slouch toward them. So, both scenarios now unconsciously incentivize me to sit farther up and back in my chair.


These adjustments have proven hugely helpful for while I’m reading (or writing) at a computer. In time, I may find further ones as well.

Different adjustments might be better for you. But hopefully, sharing these changes I’ve made, along with other useful resources on the topic, will help stoke your imagination for your own situation. Depending on what you have around already that you can repurpose, you might even be able to make such changes at the cost only of your time, creativity, and labor.

And once you do, you too might find that you’re better able to support your efforts to read at a computer or wherever else you feel improvements to be advantageous.

  1. Header image provided by Andrew Neel

Some of the links above may be “affiliate links.” If you make a purchase or sign up for a service through one of these links, I may receive a small commission from the seller. This process involves no additional cost to you and helps defray the costs of making content like this available. For more information, please see these affiliate disclosures.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.