I perked up a couple weeks ago when I read Jonah Lehrer’s post about e-books and the possible differences between reading a screen and reading a page. Like Jonah, I regard e-books with an excitement tinged with lament. But as he notes, the tide is in; they’re here to stay. Jonah describes in his post how, when packing to move back to the US from England a few years ago, he stuffed his bags with books. When I packed for England two months ago, I packed just two physical volumes, indispensable because I’d annotated them heavily for my current book project. The rest of my reading pile — about 30 books — came along in my iPad.
Yet even as I dive into these iPad books every night, I feel, like Jonah, that reading on a screen differs in some significant way from reading on paper. I’m not saying this is bad or that it will make me stoopid; just that it is.
Where’s the proof? Jonah offered some speculative brain-based hypotheses; I can offer two bits of evidence that are blatantly subjective.
The first echoes something Jonah offered in his post-scriptural “bonus point”:’
Bonus point: I sometimes wonder why I’m only able to edit my own writing after it has been printed out, in 3-D form. Why?
I find the same thing. I revise effectively both onscreen and on paper, but I revise differently on paper. I work more at a macro scale. I’m more sensitive to proportion and rhythm and timbre. I see spaces and densities better: the clumps where the prose has grown too dense, the wandering of the path where I ramble, the seams that need to be closed, the misaligned joint that I suddenly realize — yeah; there it is! — is where that paragraph from three pages ahead belongs.
As Jonah asks, Why? Is the manuscript’s physicality giving me a greater sense of physical proportion? Does the act of pressing slickened grooves into the page with my fountain pen somehow invite a corresponding mental penetration? Is the curved, flexible rigidity of five sheets in my hand sharpening my awareness of texture? Or perhaps the slowness of my pen relative to the speed of my typing favors this more structural approach — big cross outs, sections circled and moved wholesale, massive reorganizations planned with quick scribbles in the margin — over the finer-grained tweaks and cutting-and-pasting the keyboard seems to encourage.
I don’t know. But I know it’s different. It’s like putting down your violin and climbing out of the string section to take the conductor’s podium. And it works reliably. I know that when my fifth or ninth or fifteenth onscreen edit isn’t getting me anywhere or is digging me deeper into some hole I can’t get the dimensions of, I can print the manuscript and get above ground and suddenly see things I was missing.
I feel there’s a second significant difference in screen versus page reading as well, one I’ve been pondering for a couple years. I think reading on the page is vertical and personal where reading on the screen is horizontal and communal. This is subtle and took a while for me to extract. But I’ll try to explain. I’ll put this slightly more starkly than it really is, to heighten the contrast.
When I read on the screen, I’m always aware of the links. I mean not just the literal hyperlinks but the implied hyperlinks that are now embedded into every word on virtually every screen, simply because it’s so easy and productive to search. Reading onscreen, I’m always half-aware that I can go horizontally, as it were, via links, to anything the reading brings to mind — which could be anything.
This makes the reading slightly more provisional, less engaged, less settled in. You’re reading, and you’re serious about it, but you’re also aware you might feel a need to leave, even if for a moment, to check a definition, Google Dehaene or dorsal stream, or (because you can) check your email or Twitter feed. You’re reading, but you haven’t really dug in. You haven’t put you feet up. And why would you? You might have to cross the room.
When you read on the page, by contrast, you can really settle in, because it’s much more just you and the book or the magazine. It’s a far more closed, vertical exchange that requires a more committed engagement.There’s no (or less, anyway) thought of links, no implied invitation to turn to another conversation, to consult others, to follow a trail out sideways. You can’t easily go elsewhere — not without leaving your chair, anyway. Whatever you’re going to get out of this book, whatever you’re going to make of it, you’re going to have to find either in the book in your hands or in the hallways of your head. You’re really finding it, of course — you’re generating it — in this deep conversation with the book. Side conversations break the spell.
This doesn’t place page reading on a pedestal or make screen reading a threat to civilization. But it’s different. I think it makes you dig harder. I think it draws more out of you, or at least draws on you in different ways.
Possibly the benefits are more emotional than intellectual, moral, cognitive, or cultural. Possibly it’s more a luxury than a need. But it’s something I want. It’s the sort of engagement portrayed in my favorite portrait of reading, Wayne Thiebaud’s “Man Reading.” I can’t post it here, partly because I might be sued but also because I can’t find it online anyway. So I’ll have to describe it.
The painting dates, I’d guess, from the mid-sixties. We’re looking at an utterly ordinary-looking man seated directly before us in a simple chair, wearing a dark suit and black oxfords, and though he faces us, we can’t see his face because he’s bent over, leaning with his elbows on his thighs, and looking down at the book in his hands. We see his balding pate and that he wears glasses. His face we must imagine, but of his state of mind we needn’t guess. Everything in the way he holds himself on that chair, his immense private stillness, shows that he has been profoundly, perhaps permanently changed by this book. The book is closed now; he’s presumably just finished reading it; and it has so moved him that he has bent over to hold and look at it so that the world remains for a few more precious minutes just him and that book. He’d do this forever if he could. He wants the world to stay this changed. He wants to stay inside this thing he and the book have created.
I might be wrong. It might be that as I read more books on my iPad, I’ll hit some that move me that profoundly. Of coures even the iPad in book mode offers its distractions. Text on iPad books isn’t linked the way the text on web pages is, but when I highlight some text to, um, highlight it, up pop at least three options I can pursue — highlight, note, define — and this reminder that I’m creating a digital page full of excerpts, rather than a highlighted page of paper, pulls me a bit into that same linked brainspace where you read on screens; suddenly I hear other people in the room.
Those distractions aside, though — who knows, maybe I’ll adjust and this distinction will fade. But so far the engagement just doesn’t feel the same. The links don’t feel as deep.
Image by vishwaant