Reading on the Page & the Screen

The more significant section of Stephen Carter’s article in The Daily Beast that I discussed yesterday concerns the difference between reading a printed book and an e-book. Carter claims “the notion that we will experience texts the same way once they migrate to cyberspace is a fantasy.” So his concern about these two modes or reading is not simply a matter of the text’s physical existence but rather the nature of the reading experience itself.

Are we engaged with the text in the same way when we read it on the screen as we are when we read it on the printed page? Do we read the text as deeply and as thoroughly in the two modes? And what about recall of the material or our ability to apply what we read in some other situation? Aside from all the conjecture there has been about this issue, is there any evidence on these questions? The research in this area is just beginning.

According to Carter, the pilot studies that have been conducted on retention indicate that “readers who look at texts online have trouble retaining as much as those who view it on a printed page.” Carter gives no reference to the primary study he refers to nor does he explain why some critics claim the results are “artifactual.” However, he does suggest that perhaps we will find a different outcome once we have additional data from future generations that have been raised to read on the screen rather than the printed page.

He cites another study on “young” children that suggest that children may learn as much information with either mode of presentation, “but are less able to interact with the text presented on the screen.” Again, he leaves out crucial details such as the age of the children, the nature of the reading material, and what exactly he means by “interact with the text.”

The issues here stand in need of systematic analysis. And any such inquiry should take account of the three most common forms of reading on the screen—an e-book, a computer, and now a mobile phone, all of which provide opportunities for reading the same material that is available on the printed page. As far as I know there is no evidence at this time that provides a rigorous comparison of these four types of reading experience.

We do know a little about how the eyes scan the text in screen reading. Rather than reading across a line and then in order down the lines of printed text, when we read on the screen we tend to scan about the text looking for content meaning and that our eyes follow an F-shaped pattern, quickly darting across the text in search for the major point of the article. Is this reading? And do we sometimes read a book or periodical any differently?

There is also the matter how the reading experience affects us. When I read a book, I often stop to reflect on the ideas and moods it engenders along the way and write a comment in the margin or simply mark the passage. Does this kind of activity occur when I read on a computer screen? Surely, not as often. And I rarely make a note or comment while reading a document on the screen. If the material is of sufficient importance to me, I will simply print a copy and thereby transfer the material to the printed page where I can readily make note of my ideas.

I don’t know what I’d do if I read the material on a Kindle and, as long as I can still obtain what I want to read on a printed page, I’m not sure I even want to try. Maybe this is a generational thing. I don’t know anyone my age who reads much, if at all, with an e-book, although I do know many younger individuals who are quite content to switch back and forth between reading on the screen and the page.

Finally, I do worry a good deal about what the digital revolution will do to the commonplace book tradition. Will readers still keep a record of the notable passages they have read? When I asked a person who reads a great deal this question, I was informed that it is possible to “record” passages on the Kindle and download them to a computer, but that she does this less often now with her e-book and is way behind in her record keeping.

Does this portend the end of the commonplace book tradition? Perhaps we are entering a transition period where those of who continue to engage in this practice will be replaced by a generation raised to “read” on the screen and find little need to keep a record of this experience.

Carter ends his essay on an ominous note. He says “we can be certain of one thing: “A screen is not the same as a page, and, as the migration continues, the experience of reading will itself be altered. We can anticipate a decline in reflection, the willingness to work hard to understand a point of view, and perhaps the loss of the ability to appreciate the value of ideas.” In turn, he believes this will mean the decline of democracy and “the rise of something else.” A doomsday warning to be sure and one that leaves open the matter of what this “something else” will be, better or worse, or anything at all.