The Promise of E-readers

Here’s Jonah Lehrer making an odd argument against e-readers and digital text:

…And this is where the problems begin. Do we really want reading to be as effortless as possible? The neuroscience of literacy suggests that, sometimes, the best way to make sense of a difficult text is to read it in a difficult format, to force our brain to slow down and process each word. After all, reading isn’t about ease—it’s about understanding. If we’re going to read Kant on the Kindle, or Proust on the iPad, then we should at least experiment with an ugly font.

Every medium eventually influences the message that it carries. I worry that, before long, we’ll become so used to the mindless clarity of e-ink that the technology will feed back onto the content, making us less willing to endure challenging texts. We’ll forget what it’s like to flex those dorsal muscles, to consciously decipher a thorny stretch of prose. And that would be a shame, because not every sentence should be easy to read.

Lehrer’s argument seems to be a variant of the concern that ‘digital text is changing the way we process information’;  but it also appears to contain a bit of nostalgia – a yearning for a time when the experiential fact of the physical book was as much a part of the reading experience as the content itself.  Lehrer’s counsel ‘to flex those dorsal muscles’ seems to suggest that a good way to ensure deep and meaningful reading is to wrestle with an unwieldy formatting style, a figurative speed bump that forces the reader to slow down and fully experience the the various physical facets of the text.

That’s one way of experiencing a text.  But it’s not clear that an ugly font or a faded page is the best way to snare a reader.  After all, it’s the incidental characteristics of a text that we typically regard as unimportant.  Presumably, the focus of readers should be on content; and anything that reduces the incidental and accidental characteristics of the reading experience would seem to shift the focus toward content itself.   In fact, one advantage e-readers possess over physical books is that they actually minimize distractions like ink distortions or inconsistent fonts, allowing readers to attend to the content itself. 

As e-readers become more sophisticated it’s easy to imagine available content beyond what a reader specifies for purchase.   It’s conceivable that e-readers may be used to not only ‘guess’ the sort of content that a particular reader would like to read, but that it may even alter the complexity of the text based on a reader’s level, a feature that would be especially useful for struggling readers.  It’s this sort of differentiation and individualization that make e-readers so promising.  E-readers provide continuity for readers by erasing the many physical distractions of printed books, which allow readers to focus on what’s most important – the content.

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