what is reading? e-readers and print books

John Jones has a good piece at DMLcentral in response to Ferris Jabr’s Scientific American piece “Why the Brain Prefers Paper” (paywall). Here is Jabr’s summary:

Studies In the past two decades indicate that people often understand and remember text on paper better than on a screen. Screens may inhibit comprehension by preventing people from intuitively navigating and mentally mapping long texts.

In general, screens Are also more cognitively and physically taxing than paper. Scrolling demands constant conscious effort, and LCD screens on tablets and laptops can strain the eyes and cause headaches by shining light directly on people’s faces.

Preliminary research Suggests that even so-called digital natives are more likely to recall the gist of a story when they read it on paper because enhanced e-books and e-readers themselves are too distracting. Paper’s greatest strength may be its simplicity.

The article does conclude though by noting the electronic texts now incorporate interactive and multimedia elements that are simply not possible to achieve in print. (Wow, I did not know that. Thanks Scientific American.) Jones carefully reviews some of the research Jabr references to reveal some of the problems with the specific claims about reading comprehension and the cognitive demands of e-readers. I recommend that you take a look at it.

I am interested here in the more abstract question of reading itself. Jabr turns to Proust and the Squid to observe that “we are not born with brain circuits dedicated to reading, because we did not invent writing until relatively recently in our evolutionary history, around the fourth millennium B.C. So in childhood, the brain improvises a brand-new circuit for reading by weaving together various ribbons of neural tissue devoted to other abilities, such as speaking, motor coordination and vision.” So reading isn’t “natural,” right? It’s a learned, “social” activity. It’s an activity tied to various constellations of technologies, as Jones points out. So the brain has to develop the visual acuity to recognize letters and words. Depending on whether you’re reading up or down from left to right or right to left and so on, the brain operates differently. Furthermore, the brain faces different demands and calls on different operations depending on the content and genre of the text.

Perhaps, as Jones suggests, the issue here is related to education and the possibility of students being asked to use e-readers rather than textbooks. Can Johnny learn from his Kindle or not? Of course these matters beg the question. If learning or comprehension is what happens when you read a paper text, then you should probably read a paper text if you want to learn or comprehend. If e-readers need to simulate the cognitive experience of the paper text, they are always going to miss the mark to some extent. That seems fairly obvious to me. However, another discovery from the realm of the painfully obvious is that it would be impossible for me to write this or you to read this on paper. I wouldn’t have had access to John’s piece (or Scientific American). I wouldn’t have found out about either if it weren’t for Facebook. The very first problem, in my mind, with these questions is that they assume the reading, comprehension, and learning are solitary activities. Perhaps, on paper, they seem that way; the networks are so distant and non-responsive. The second problem has to do with scale. It presumes that reading and comprehension should necessarily scale to the cognitive load of the individual human reader. The distant reading practice in the digital humanities is a version of this problem. Anyone who has been a grad student and had to devise reading lists for a phd qualifying exam also encounters this. Derek Mueller has discussed this as a fundamental “reading problem” in our discipline. And the third problem, as a result, is that we end up pointing the finger in the wrong direction. Our concern shouldn’t be how do we make the reading experience of e-readers more like the experience of reading a book. Our concern should be understanding and developing the cognitive potential of emerging technologies.

If we accept this argument that the difference between the cognitive operation of paper reading and that of screen reading is significant, then this is really a problem for those who would want to hold on to the value of print literacy. Suddenly they are providing horseback riding lessons in the age of the automobile.

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