I bought my first Kindle five years ago, and it transformed my life overnight. I’d say more than 90% of my fiction purchases since then have been digital, and much as I love print books, I know it’s likely to stay that way, because the practical considerations in favor of e-books are so overwhelming:
Availability: the authors I like to read are typically not stocked by my local bookshops.
Instant gratification: I don’t need a TBR stack to choose from any more. Whatever I feel like reading a particular book, I can buy it there and then from the comfort of my sofa.
Portability: I can fit my whole library in my handbag. These days when I go on holiday I actually have room for clothes in my suitcase.
Storage: chez Jilly, we used to purge our physical books periodically, because otherwise we’d have run out of space in the house. We took about 800 titles to the charity shop earlier this year, and for the first time in living memory our paper books are only one deep on the bookshelves. I doubt we’ll ever need to do this kind of giveaway again.
At the same time, I’ve noticed that most e-books I read don’t stick in my mind the way a physical book does. The look and feel of a book, the title and the author, the flow of the language and even the position of a piece of text on a page, used to lodge in my memory. I’d re-read a novel, get to the end of a page and know already what the words overleaf would be. Now I seem to treat the experience in a more disposable way. Oftentimes the writing doesn’t seem to be so memorable, and I struggle to remember an author or title. Even when I browse the index on my Kindle it doesn’t ring any bells unless I try a sample.
I’ve been assuming my experience is a by-product of old age, but today I decided to ask the interwebs if there was more to it than that, and guess what? Take a look at this article in The Guardian, reporting on academic research by Anne Mangen of Stavanger University. She found that when asked to recall the sequence of plot points in a mystery story, paperback readers performed significantly better than Kindle readers. Scarier still, check out this piece in the Washington Post about the effect of technology on our reading brain.
The story seems to be that our brains are plastic – they adapt continuously. When the written word was invented, we had to learn how to read. Now we are learning how to handle vast quantities of information, and we’re establishing a new default for our mental toolbox, setting ourselves up automatically to sift, skim, sort, search, scan and scroll. As our brains spend most of their day working in a non-linear fashion, over time we lose the ability to read sequentially sentence by sentence. A book has less chance to make a deep and lasting impression.
Maryanne Wolf, a cognitive neuroscientist whose work is quoted in the Washington Post article, says that she hears from University English departments that their students are struggling to read the classics: “The students no longer will or are perhaps incapable of dealing with the convoluted syntax and construction of George Eliot and Henry James.”
Wolf says she is training her own brain to be bi-literate – to work in both a linear and non-linear way. When she discovered that she was unable to concentrate on a Herman Hesse novel after a day of working digitally, she made a conscious decision to spend time away from her screens, reading in traditional fashion. For the first three days she struggled, but within a couple of weeks she re-learned to slow down and read deeply.
I have a few personal takeouts from this:
- If I have the choice between reading something in digital or physical format, I will make a conscious effort to choose the paper format.
- If I’m going to buy a book that’s available in physical format and I don’t want it for immediate consumption, I will consider buying the dead tree version.
- If I find a book or series that’s a keeper and I think I’m likely to re-read it, I will buy a paper copy as well.
- When I do read digitally, I will make a conscious effort to slow down and try to read in a linear way, as if I was reading a physical book. I will also put my phone away and turn my laptop off while I’m reading.
- While I’m using my computer, I will try to be mindful of the way I’m working. If I need to browse the internet for information, then I’ll scan and skim and sort and let my brain do its non-linear thing. At times when I do not need to hop and skip (for example, when I’m writing), I will make a concerted effort to stop doing so. I’ve always assumed that a quick scan of my inbox or phone whenever I feel like it is no big deal. Perhaps it is.
What do you think? How bi-literate is your brain? Do you think this is something we should worry about?