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The Experience of Reading

Written By: Youki on February 17, 2009 9 Comments

Bobbie Johnson, writer for the UK Guardian’s Technology Blog, recently wrote an article entitled “Why aren’t ebooks taking off? Not enough pirates” in which he examines the role of piracy in the conversion from analog to digital music, video, and books:

Everyone’s looking at the pattern they’ve seen in music and video – an old medium changed radically by technology – and waiting for it to hit the book world. But the chances of that happening right now are very small indeed. Why? It’s fairly straightforward.

The real reason that the music industry came around to the idea of downloads wasn’t because they had a startling insight into the future, or even because Apple forced the issue by building a clever ecosystem around the iPod (it didn’t launch the iTunes store until 2003). It was because customers were choosing to pirate instead.

To put it less glibly, the publishing industry isn’t being forced to confront a radical shift in consumer behaviour caused by technology, because that scenario just is not happening. Customers aren’t forcing the issue by choosing to abandon books and read pirated text instead. And this means the problem isn’t there to be confronted.

I think the question runs far deeper.  What is it about music and video that makes for a relatively easy conversion from analog to digital formats, whereas the conversion from printed to digital books isn’t as smooth?  A few thoughts:

1. I associate reading a book more with being at a live concert/play.  It’s more than just text on a page.  Alberto Manguel, in A History of Reading, says it well: “I too soon discovered that one does not simply read Crime and Punishment or A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.  One reads a certain edition, a specific copy, recognizable by the roughness or smoothness of the paper, by its scent, by a slight tear on page 72 and a coffee ring on the right-hand corner of the back cover” (p. 15).  Reading a good book is an indulgence.

2. The Kindle retails for $359 and is single-function.  Quite a large investment when you can buy a netbook for around the same price.

3. One of the main strengths of digital audio is its portability — record players aren’t portable, but MP3 players are.  Books are already portable, which reduces the value added to portable digital readers.

4. You can fall asleep reading a book for a seamless transition from the narrative universe to your dream universe.  However, reading from an electronic device requires that you turn off the device and set it somewhere where you won’t accidentally break it.  Although a slight distinction, it can mean world of difference for some people.

5.  In Actual Minds, Possible Worlds, Jerome Bruner suggests that people think in two nonexclusive modes: paradigmatic and narrative.  The paradigmatic mode of thought, or the logico-scientific one, “attempts to fulfill the ideal of a formal, mathematical system of description and explanation” (p. 12).  The narrative mode of thought, on the other hand, is what “makes good stories powerful or compelling” — gripping drama, believable historical accounts, and “epiphanies of the ordinary” (p. 13).  These modes of thought, and their corresponding modes of text, produce different forms of interaction with the reader.  You read a technical paper differently from a murder mystery.  Reading someone’s personal biography will produce different emotions than reading about his or her accomplishments in a textbook.  Do different technological modes (technological in the broad sense, which includes printed books) favor different modes of thought? 

6. Are you more likely to be engrossed in a book, with fixed text on fixed pages completely bounded by two covers, whereas electronic media has socialized us to think in hypertext, links, and multitasking?  When I read an academic paper, I usually read it non-linearly.  I read the first few paragraphs, the last couple paragraphs, then go back and read from beginning to end.  I’m not as interested in the experience of reading an academic paper as I am in understanding it and being able to recall it later.  I also prefer to be next to my computer so that I can look up  new terms, read background theory, or look up the biography of the writer.  The configuration of the text has less significance for me when I’m reading scholarly writing.  However, with narratives/stories, I’ll always follow the configuration of the text as the writer intended.  I’m more interested in how the story unfolds, the gaps between what is known and what is unknown, the act of discovery.  These different modes of reading may have subtle influences in how we perceive printed vs digital books.

What are people’s thoughts on reading online vs. on paper?  More specifically, what kinds of text do you read online and in print?

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9 Responses to “The Experience of Reading”

  1. Usree Bhattacharya on: 17 February 2009 at 6:37 pm

    Your post made me think of THIS. I can’t wait to check one out.

  2. daveski on: 20 February 2009 at 3:24 pm

    I like the point you make in #4. Which reminds me of an important corollary: reading and potentially falling asleep in the bathtub with a book is a lot more comfortable and safer than with a computer.

    I’m sad that newspapers are going out of business everywhere, since i much prefer reading the news on real paper rather than online. I don’t know why.

  3. Rick Kern on: 21 February 2009 at 8:51 pm

    Great post, Youki! Reading on screen vs on paper is an interesting question. There is probably more research evidence supporting the greater efficiency/comfort of reading on paper, but high resolution screens (and the flex screens that Usree posted in her comment) are no doubt changing things. Reading extensively on a screen may be in some part a generational thing (like IM). Undergrads (and some grads) now find it just as easy to read online. As screen technology has improved (especially brightness) it has gotten easier for me to read online, but I still prefer paper if the text is at all long (and I definitely prefer reading a paper newspaper). There’s something about the tactile experience of navigating on paper, flipping through pages, remembering positions of passages on the page, that help me (or so I think) develop a better representation of the text. For a review of some studies in this area, see Kamil, M. L., Intrator, S. M., & Kim, H. S. (2000). The effects of other technologies on literacy and literacy learning. In M. L. Kamil, P. B. Mosenthal, P. D. Pearson & R. Barr (Eds.), Handbook of Reading Research, Volume III (pp. 771-788). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

  4. Rick Kern on: 21 February 2009 at 8:57 pm

    One more thing, speaking of newspapers. According to Joe Nocera, business columnist for the New York Times, readers of the online version of the New York Times spend an average of 45 minutes per month reading, whereas people reading the paper version of the New York times spend 35 minutes per day on average. I don’t know to what extent this is really true, and I’m not sure how meaningful it is to talk about averages, but this would certainly suggest a very different reading experience on paper and online.

  5. Youki on: 22 February 2009 at 12:19 am

    usree-> heh that’s cool. I wonder how long it’ll be before we have holographic text displays that magically float in the air in front of you.

    rick-> yeah I can see the results of that study as being very misleading, since online reading is a very different activity from offline (how often does someone send you a newspaper clipping through the mail? My mother does that sometimes!). I’d want to see overall reading habits, since people who read online may not consider the NYT as their primary source of news (which would, of course, result in a very different interpretation of the data), while it’s much more likely that people who read the paper version of the NYT consider it as their primary source of news.

  6. Youki on: 1 March 2009 at 3:21 am

    forgot another reason:

  7. Usree Bhattacharya on: 28 March 2009 at 6:21 pm

    Hey Youki, check THIS out!

  8. Youki on: 28 March 2009 at 9:59 pm

    hah eyebuds, nice.

  9. Youki on: 4 April 2009 at 2:57 pm

    Interesting NYT article on experimental digital book projects:

    Is This the Future of the Digital Book?

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