The Art Of Reading In The Digital Era

In “Teaching The Art Of Reading In The Digital Era”, James McWilliams discusses the amplified cognitive experience of reading when a physical book’s tactility and smell is in play…. compared to a Kindle:

“Reading,” says Steve Mannheimer, professor of Media Arts and Science at Indiana University, “doesn’t occur without some fairly specific and concrete combination of physical objects, environment, and purpose.” So one technique is to focus on the book as a book. “Intuitively, I would say that the paper book invites far more physical manipulation with at least the fingers and hands,” he says. “All that finger/hand fidgeting is part of the cognitive process, or at least reinforces the cognitive process of reading.”

There’s other evidence that a traditional book, rather than an electronic tablet, makes for a more engaged reading experience. During research for a paper published in 2014, Anne Mangen, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Stavanger in Norway, compared the reading experience of iPad users and paper traditionalists reading the same material. She found that readers felt less transported by the writing and less able to resist distractions when reading on an iPad than on paper. “When you read on paper you can sense with your fingers a pile of pages on the left growing, and shrinking on the right,” she told the Guardian. Such a “tactile sense of progress,” she suggested, helps readers better follow the storyline.

In a review paper, Australian scholars Stewart Todhunter and Penny de Byl argue that “the ability to touch and smell a book has an innate power, engaging readers in a way not yet possible through pure digitized versions of the same media.” They write that the “human perception of tangibility” is directly linked to the production of knowledge, a connection that originates in an infant’s ability to mentally grasp objects not available for immediate observation. “Although it is possible to touch an ebook,” they write, “the interactivity does not endow the same effect” as an actual book. The fact that “it is not the actual book itself being touched but the device on which it resides” is a distinction that, when it comes to forming reading habits, matters.

The reason for this difference may come down to what the scholars Jim Gerlach and Peter Buxmann call “haptic dissonance”: an alienation from the book as physical book. To better understand this phenomenon, the researchers surveyed avid readers—people who read, on average, 30 books a year—and had them imagine reading a hardcover book and on an e-reader. The study found that 93.3 percent identified “the feel of a page and the paper” and 80 percent identified “the feel of turning a page” as important aspects of reading. When they turned to the e-readers, 56.7 percent explicitly “miss[ed] the paper while turning the pages” while a third reported that, “while holding the book, I can’t feel the progress I’ve made.” Summarizing the research on “the reading brain in the digital age,” Ferris Jabr writes in Scientific American, “evidence from laboratory experiments, polls and consumer reports indicates that modern screens and e-readers fail to adequately recreate certain tactile experiences of reading on paper that many people miss and, more importantly, prevent people from navigating long texts in an intuitive and satisfying way.”

Another thing electronic books cannot provide is something that many reading experts believe is essential for creating an environment conducive to lifelong reading: a room filled with actual books. Lisa Sumner, an English teacher at Bluffton High School in Bluffton, South Carolina, considers it her “life’s work” to be “guiding people to read rigorously.” When we speak about her classroom strategies, she stresses, more than any other factor, the importance of having “a huge classroom library,” with physical books from floor to ceiling there to be grabbed, handled, smelled, shared, and browsed at will. “Being around books does something to people,” she says. “Being in a room where every wall is full of books is a visual reminder” that Sumner thinks is critical to becoming a “book person.”

I’m a late-to-the-game fan of the Kindle, primarily for its ability to store a near endless amount of books on such a small, portable device. The ability to read in low-light conditions, the very long battery life, the ability to change font size… All work towards cognitive enhancement in various situations.

But there is truly nothing like a physical book, and really nothing like a bookshelf filled with books. The pleasure I get from visiting used book stores is second to none.

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