Reading On Screen Part 2

Further to the vexatious topic of reading on screen versus paper (oddly enough, subject of the most popular post on this blog). Fast Company has a piece by Annie Sneed that rounds up some recent findings on the trade-off: Everything Science Knows About Reading On Screens.

She cites a speculative, but plausible, view that screens are less congenial to deep, attentive reading:

Nonlinear reading might especially hurt what researchers call “deep-reading”—our in-depth reading of text that requires intense focus to fully understand it, like the works of James Joyce or Virginia Woolf. “Skimming is fine for our emails, but it’s not fine for some of the important forms of reading,” says Tufts University cognitive neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf. “If you word-spot James Joyce, you’ll miss the entire experience.”

I’ll mostly pass over the mild paradox that “linear” is not a word I would apply to such paragons of literary modernism as Joyce & Woolf. One can imagine Joyce happilyflipping his wig over a hypertext Ulysses, a book which he famously said people would still be trying to decode  centuries later. If ever there were a book you go “in” rather than through it’s that one.

But I take the point; there is a quietness and materiality to reading on paper (and writing on paper) as well as a slowing down, and perhaps a bit more intentionality. When you are using a digital device, all kinds of processes & gizmos beckon, and instead of a reader, you are a bartender with a bunch of obstreperous patrons. (FB message? email, that long download that was supposed to be finished, and “oops, where is that power cable again? I’m down to 5%”). None of these particular distractions plague books. Also–and I think, though simple, this is key–a book has a self-evident way of telling you where you are, and how to find things without need of digital search. A book is a book-shaped thing and we know how it works intrinsically, because how it works is what it is. That perhaps transcends the many  comparative advantages digital offers. A minor practical example: there’s something delicious about peeking ahead to see whether there are 5 or 20 pages left in the chapter, and whether you should wait to make your tea or not. (A vision into the kinds of exciting questions that animate my daredevil lit’rery life.)

William Morris says, “put that laptop away, young man.”

Given that I work all day on screen, it’s probably not surprising that my book reading is on paper.  (Although perversely, I did read News from Nowhere on my iPad, something I can’t imagine William Morris would heap approbation on.) I have been on a Trollope tear recently and can’t imagine reading him except on paper. But he’d probably be ridiculously enjoyable in any format, he’s also drolly wise, so gets tonight’s last word:

“The habit of reading is the only enjoyment I know in which there is no alloy. It lasts when all other pleasures fade. It will be there to support you when all other resources are gone. It will be present to you when the energies of your body have fallen away from you. It will last you until your death. It will make your hours pleasant to you as long as you live.” – Anthony Trollope

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