I came across an interesting article (click on the photo below to read it for yourself) on the Scientific American website; it compares e-reading to physical reading, and discusses the pros and cons, the questions as to whether our brains are adapting to deal with the new technological challenges, and whether or not we as a human race could risk losing certain cognitive functions by abandoning physical reading. I found the article informative; but I also observed myself while reading and I discovered a few things:
As I write (type) this, I’m sitting in my usual writing location – in our home library surrounded by well over a thousand books. I’ve collected antique books over the years, and have some nearly 200 years old, while I have my own latest books fresh off the press as well. Those books, old or new, aren’t for show – they’re for reading. I also have a Kindle, and often read books either on the Kindle or on my android Tab, or even my computer with the Kindle for PC app. But as I read the article I found myself getting impatient, and I realized that the article, while professing to be a neutral assessment of the two mediums, had broken a few unspoken criteria for Netiquette: When I read online my expectation is that the article is succinct (not rambling); 300-500 words is the optimal length (give or take a bit), and yet this SA article was over 3,900 words long, equivalent to 7 A4 typed pages (I copied the article to plain text for a quick check). As a comparison, a random chapter from a novel (taken from my Kindle) was at 3,200 words (5 A4 pages). Underlying assumptions are that a) a typical magazine or periodical article that works in a printed format should work equally as well for an online format and b) if it doesn’t it must mean that people reading online are less patient or (dare I say it?) less intelligent than our print readers. But some of the questions (and one assumes they are rhetorical) the article raises are, “As digital texts and technologies become more prevalent, we gain new and more mobile ways of reading—but are we still reading as attentively and thoroughly? How do our brains respond differently to onscreen text than to words on paper?” Had they looked at any resources for tips on writing articles online, they would have seen a tip at the top of most lists regarding length. Our brains do respond differently to online text because we have a different set of expectations or criteria.
Personally, I read a lot. A LOT. Both digital as well as printed formats. I would classify myself as, for want of a proper word, “Polyliterate”: I read equally thoroughly in a book and on my Kindle / computer. But criteria and expectations are different for online vs. onscreen, and I think the article misses that distinction. Onscreen, I’m thorough; online, I expect the text to get to the crux of the matter within the first screen-length (and conclude by the end of the second); I have no patience for those sites that force a reader to click through several screens to get to their point(s). Precisely because I work on the computer, my online time is more valuable; I want conciseness. And as to reading books, like any true bibliophile I love the feel of a good book in my hands, the tactile experience of knowing just where I am in the context of the whole story; but I also love taking an entire library with me in my Kindle, getting lost in the story either way (and not the format).
If any of you take the time to read the entire article (by clicking on the photo) below, what are your thoughts? Or if you have given extensive thought to this issue yourself, what do you think? What are your reading habits and expectations of physical vs. onscreen vs. online matter?