Shortly after posting my recent thoughts on ebooks vs. tree books, a friend sent me a link to a recent article in the April issue of Scientific American, “The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper vs. Screen“ by Ferris Jabr. The article explains why I feel the way I do about my Kindle.
The brain, it seems, may perceive a text as a kind of physical landscape. So when we read a book, whether fiction or non-fiction, we are taking a journey of sorts. With a book in hand, we have a sense of exactly where the journey begins and where it will end. Although we may focus on one page at a time, we do not lose the sense of where we are in the journey. We orient ourselves as we proceed and the pages in left hand tell us how far we have traveled. We may even remember (as if it were a landmark encountered in a physical journey) the location (towards bottom of a left hand page near the middle of the book, for instance) of a passage or fact we would like to return to. As Fabr puts it, when reading on a screen, “instead of hiking the trail yourself, the trees, rooks and moss move past you in flashes with no trace of what came before and no way to see what lies ahead.” (It occurs to me that this is also why, for me, prose anthologies are not very satisfying. I want to hold the entire story or essay in my hand without those other voices silently standing around on the perimeter.)
Some research suggests that these limits on navigating the text interfere with comprehension. Many people report that if they really need to understand a lengthy document, they have to print it out to study it.
I was pleased to find out that I am not the only control freak when it comes to reading a book. Others report flipping to a previous page to reread a passage or scanning ahead. Writing in the margin, underlining, highlighting, dog-earing pages, pasting on sticky notes, inserting bookmarks—these tactile activities matter and may be more important than they seem in comprehending a text.
The research summarized in Jabr’s article is suggestive. Some of it is several years old; some of the samples are small. Nevertheless it confirms what I intuitively believe to be true. Much more in the way of neuroscientific research needs to be done on the way the new technology impacts learning and how it is changing us in fundamental ways. It seems to me that we need to know much more about the way activities of the hand, for instance, relate to the function of the brain. In other words, we need to know what we are doing when we adopt a new technology or discard an old practice in favor of what may or may not on balance be a good idea.
E-reader designers are hard at work making reading on an e-reader more like reading on paper. There is the realistic page turning of Apple iBooks, for instance, and a yet-to-be-released interface from a South Korean group that will enable the reader to see the already-read pages on the left and the unread on the right.