How Do You Read a Book?


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 Marie Bracquemond (1840-1916). Afternoon Tea, 1880.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.)

FragreaderSome 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.

These efforts simply seem to acknowledge that the paper book is superior in some respects. No matter how hard the designers work they will not be able to devise an e-book that you can touch.BoldiniGiovanni-Leyendoenlacama- 

19 thoughts on “How Do You Read a Book?

  1. Reading a book that you hold in your hand is fun. Reading off of a screen is work. That is how I feel. I do read off of screens but always for work. When I read for enjoyment, I get to turn the pages.


  2. I still remember borrowing books from you and being nearly as enlightened by your marginalia as by the actual text!

    Nothing can ever replace the experience of a “real” book. But I’d guess that my generation may be among the last who can interpret a static narrative flow. The real power of digital books is not in the ways they mimic a physical book, but in the connections and flexibility they provide beyond anything that would ever be possible in print. Like the way digital music has virtually eliminated the concept of the album — now we just pick and choose the songs we like, and mix them up with anything else that strikes our fancy. No longer are the musicians in control of how or where we hear their work. And it seems that the same will soon be true for authors, film makers, etc.

    A digital book taking full advantage of the technology is like a window into a vast library catering to all the senses — every single page can be a portal to a million other places. Again looking at the way music has gone, we may soon see physical books becoming objects valued as much for their tactile qualities as for their content, a la the recent craze for vinyl records.

    Of course, the question you raise — is this good for us? — seems even more pertinent…and obviously I don’t have an answer. But I’m so glad someone is asking!


    1. Eva, you’re probably right about the next generation opting for the digital. I am continually amazed—shocked, really—at how rapidly technology is advancing. And I know you’re right about the “flexibility” of the digital book. But yikes–it’s exactly all those tempting windows engaging us as we go along–that concern me. Like that road that “diverged in the yellow wood,” “way leads onto way” and we may never get back. (And incidentally, I expect you are one of the few of your generation who recognizes the allusion).
      You are not suggesting, are you, that every page of Dickens include a portal to other places? I fear the loss of the narrative arc, among other delights of the novels if we are continually interrupting the story for more info or sound.

      Incidentally, don’t you think the vinyl records sound better than CD’s?


      1. We are so allied with you in principle on this Mary, that we still listen to our opera and symphonies on LP, and our popular music on 78s! I prefer not only physical books, but ideally an edition published before 1950 (when they still cared about the kind of paper they printed on). I recently came across a set of Kipling’s novels and poetry bound in red leather from the 20s and boy did I grab them fast, even though I probably could have gotten free digital copies for my iPad.

        That said, I do think that the way people consume information eventually affects the kind of information they consume. It would indeed be unfortunate to interrupt Dickens with hyperlinks — I resent non-author footnotes in my classic literature. But even before tablets and digital books became so ubiquitous, the number of people my age reading “old books” just for fun seemed pretty low. Perhaps those who still appreciate the content of the classics, will continue to read them in their original form, while those who are interested in topics which can better take advantage of new technology will be more likely to use digital formats?

        Here’s another theoretical question — would it be worth bastardizing a classic by linking outside content if by so doing you could interest a young person in reading it for the first time? Gateway books…

        Thanks again for an interesting topic to ponder!


  3. The data on the article is flimsy at best, but I can see some of the points. I sometimes remember something in a book by its position on the page. It’s more practical to leaf through the book to find the location of something.
    Still, these disadvantages are evened out if not surpassed by e-books advantages. The embedded dictionary, the search option, the easy underlining, the font size mutability, etc.


    1. I imagine, as some have suggested, that gradually, over time, digital reading may become the norm. Babies who are “reading” on ipads now will no doubt prefer e-books when they are older. Except for the font size adaptability, I don’t myself consider the characteristics you mention advantages.I really love feeling the physical book, turning the pages (rather than tapping a screen) and being able to write on the page with my own hand. Incidentally when I first got my Kindle, I was continually having to go back to the previous page to pick up phrases I had missed at the end of the page. I finally figured out that I was accustomed to reading the last sentence or so as I turned the page.

      I freely acknowledge that the reservations some of us have may be largely generational. However, I would really like to know how screen reading changes the brain. I was surprised that there apparently is not more recent or thorough research on the subject. I assume that if there were, the author would have discussed it. I’m not at all convinced that those effects are positive.


      1. I really couldn’t say, but I don’t see a logical reason for screen reading to have a negative effect. Those studies are old and a technology like e-ink is completely different from a retro-iluminated screen.
        For me the worse thing that may occur is that kids have access to a multi-task device like an iPad and, given the option, will avoid books altogether.


      2. Yes–I hope that books will continue to attract readers.I really think they will, but I suspect the whole field of publishing will be entirely different in the future. It is already undergoing a transformation.


      3. Hi Mary–what a wonderful topic. I enjoyed reading your and Eva’s responses. I am studying Library science and archiving, and as you can imagine this topic came up in my first semester often–e readers and their influence on how people will read. I also prefer the actual book, as I frequently re-read what I have read. Reading on my iPhone makes my eyes hurt quickly and often causes headaches. I must agree that including links would prove distracting I believe. I am hopeful that the printed word will be around for decades to come if not centuries, although sadly the paper used in the last 50 plus years is deteriorating fast. Excellent discussion! Best, Margaret


      4. Well,this is something we hadn’t considered: the quality of paper that the book is printed on! I’m afraid that the economies necessary in the hard-ressed publishing industry will preclude any improvement along these lines. What to do?


  4. Just yesterday I experienced a merging of the old and new technologies regarding books! I was visiting the Lower East Side Tenement Museum Bookstore, where I found several books I would like to read for a research project. So, I simply took out my cell phone and photographed the covers of the books in which I was interested. Later in the evening, using my cell phone and laptop, I was able to update my bibliography, and even tracked down most of the books in public library system where I live in Washington DC. This doesn’t quite address the e-book issue. Still, I would not have been able to do this so quickly and easily without the books being in their original hard cover format for me to photograph, or without the wonders of modern technology. And I was keenly grateful for both!


  5. Very interesting! Here is my two cents. I read on my smart phone what I refer to as escape books (adventure, thriller, detective) in bed until I fall asleep at night. My grandson recently loaned me an escape book by an author he thought I would enjoy, which I did. I downloaded, from the library to my smart phone, three more books by this author. Once again, escape books help me fall asleep, not to be underlined, referred to again, or information retained. However, when I wanted to read (study) a book about classical music, I ordered a “real” book from Barnes and Noble, which I did underline, referred to again and again, and kept for future use. The same with a book I ordered recently about Catherine the Great. When it comes to “e-books versus tree books”, I think you can have your cake and eat it too. By the way, the painting of “A Young Girl Reading” has always been a favorite of mine. I love your blogs–more please.


    1. I wonder if a lot of people don’t discriminate in this way—using e books for certain types of reading and “real” books for other types. Maybe this is how it will all shake out, with e books and physical books coexisting. I think it would be very difficult to read books on the little screen of a phone, but I know several people, including the teenage grandson, who do. I’m glad you like the blog! More on the way.


  6. I work with a group of women who organize a used book sale each year to benefit our college. We open with 70,000 volumes organized by categories on the basketball floor. People wait in line for hours for the doors to open. The seven of us that sort and price are all book addicts, and we can’t imagine our lives without the “real” book with its wonderful cover and memories of past reads or anticipation of what’s to come. The most often asked question is “where do you get the books?”. The answer is they just appear. We receive on average 1,000 volumes per week. People who love books are so grateful to have a place to bring those that must be given away. Often they are managing the estate of a parent, siblihg, or even child who has died. Or they have reached the point where they are leaving their big house and must cull their collection. Since all of us are old enough to have loved and lost, we sit and talk about transitions. What is surprising is the deep emotional attachment some people have for their books. It is hard to imagine anyone in tears as they turn in their outdated Nook. New technologies always change things, and the benefits are easier to see than the disadvantages. Changing the way we read has the potential for changing who we are. But it won’t be changing any of the Book House volunteers. We will be heading into our sunset years struggling to hold up our real books with arthritic hands.



  7. This is such an eloquent tribute to the printed book. And how true it is that the advantages of a new technology are easier to see than the disadvantages! I buy a lot of used books, and frequently I find an inscription on the flyleaf, “To Agnes, with love on her birthday,” for instance, along with a date and location. I always wonder about Agnes and the journey the book has made before it got to me. I imagine that the book once meant a lot to its owner and I’m just grateful that it has survived. In a way I prefer the used book to a new book (as long as Agnes refrained from underlining) simply because I know others have held it and read it before me.


  8. Mary – loved your observations about all of this, and as a grandparent of two, I definitely understand how we are tight-roping this strand of the “digital divide”. As a traditional (non-tech) creative, I personally note the experience of turning pages, of the feel and direct contact with the feel, the graphics,and variations of the printed page, particularly when I read with my little ones. I love the “pop up” free book kiosks I have seen in NYC, where people can just stand and read, take, leave, share. It’s an interesting human connection to observe and participate in. Not discounting the value and potential centrality of e-reading, I always wonder, maybe somewhat neurotically, if you decide you will be paperless, what happens when you can’t source the “juice” for tech devices? There is definitely a place for the cultivation of both forms of literary participation.


    1. I’ve seen the kiosks at Bryant Park. We have a similar situation in our laundry room. We leave books there we no longer want to keep and pick up books our neighbors have left that we think we would like to read. Bring them back or not. . .doesn’t matter. In fact, I am reading a laundry-room novel now. Sharing books is part of the fun of reading.


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