This essay will examine digital reading and reading online, as distinct from reading printed texts. Printed books are typically linear in narrative, they are flat, solitary, and require a large portion of the reader’s attention. Digital reading is more expansive and connected, but it is also more circumscribed than traditional reading. In this essay I will examine the competing reading strategies at play within these two different styles of reading. I submit that the reading of ebooks and reading online are more rushed and less in-depth than the slow or deep-reading processes normally associated with printed books. Electronic reading devices aim to replicate both the intellectual and physical sensation of reading a book, and this essay will investigate the nefarious way e-readers go about this. In contrast, what is native to ebooks and digital reading but not to traditional printed books – the hypertext – will be explored.
It might be useful before I begin to define my terms. “Digital reading” is a catch-all word to mean reading conducted on an electronic device. Here I include webpages and PDFs read on personal computers, but also ebooks downloaded to tablet computers or e-readers. All reading material appearing on a screen and either composed of pixels or e-ink, effectively. While internet articles are written with the web in mind, ebooks are usually authored with little heed to their electronic afterlife. But the internet has instituted different reading strategies that affect not just how both these are read, but printed books as well.
A recent article in The Guardian by Alison Flood states that Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch was the most bought but unfinished ebook of 2014.[i] Although the recipient of this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Tartt’s novel failed to sufficiently grip digital readers. Michael Tamblyn, president of the ebook vendor Kobo which conducted the study, said:
A book’s position on the bestseller list may indicate it’s bought, but that isn’t the same as it being read or finished… People may wait days, months, or even until the following year to finish certain titles. And many exercise that inalienable reader’s right to set down a book if it doesn’t hold their interest (Flood, online).
Those readers surveyed may still be progressing, slowly but surely, through The Goldfinch’s 800 pages, which should admittedly take longer to read than normal. But what Tamblyn fails to do is ascribe this inability to finish long texts to the shifting habits of readers effected by electronic devices, the kind his company sell.
One reason why owners of the Tartt ebook edition may have faltered was covered in a complementary article also by Flood. It led with “A new study which found that readers using a Kindle were “significantly” worse than paperback readers at recalling when events occurred in a mystery story” (Flood, online).[ii] Readers of both the digital and printed versions of a text reported similar levels of comprehension, but where the two differed substantially was in the retention of crucial plot points. There are an abundance of plot points in a text spanning The Goldfinch’s size, but this also means that ebooks might not be best suited to concentrated, drawn-out reading. The article concluded that “‘the haptic and tactile feedback of a Kindle does not provide the same support for mental reconstruction of a story as a print pocket book does’” (ibid).
Books and print were once the dominant form of communication, but like most things that position has been disrupted by the rise of the internet and other media: “One has only to survey the multiple media through which humanity now communicates to see that print culture is slowly being displaced from the centre of social communication to the periphery, still necessary but no longer the sole form of information in an electronic age” (Finkelstein, McCleery, p.485).[iii]
With the internet’s advent the act of deep reading is looked at increasingly as a recondite skill. Nicholas Carr mines this depth-metaphor in his article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”: “My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski” (Carr, online).[iv] Deep reading, like diving, is not a fair-weather sport; it is immersive and slow, unlike quickly skating along at the top end, unaware of the rich ecosystem below your skis.
Carr notes this growing intolerance for stomaching large texts: “Deep reading… is indistinguishable from deep thinking. If we lose those quiet spaces, or fill them up with “content,” we will sacrifice something important not only in our selves but in our culture” (ibid). Here once again deep reading is viewed as a quiet pursuit, while digital reading is clamouring, congested and superficial. Michael Rosenwald in The Washington Post spots the differences between media:
The Internet is different [from printed books]. With so much information… our brains form shortcuts to deal with it all – scanning, searching for key words, scrolling up and down quickly. This is nonlinear reading… Some researchers believe that for many people, this style of reading is beginning to invade when dealing with other mediums as well (Rosenwald, Online).[v]
The short sentence structure that internet users are growing accustomed to, as well as the automatic assistance that hyperlinks provide, mean digital devices have changed how we approach reading. Deep reading is denigrated online thanks to websites competing for views with titillating and easily digested content (usually lists). Noah Wardrip-Fruin in A Companion to Digital Literary Studies writes:
The internet pushes further the reading practices typical of popular culture, where magazines and newspapers are quickly read and then disposed of… One does not approach a literary text the same way as a news item… Books and magazines, literary texts, and press releases share the same space, the window of a browser, and they are subject to the same initial reading strategies (Wardrip-Fruin, p.191).
The proximity of reading to browsing online means the same methods are unknowingly applied. Coming from the internet, where content is consumed at a frenetic pace, suddenly to an analogue book operating at a very different speed, can take time to adjust, and be frustrating. Neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf in an interview with Michael Rosenwald conceded she was unable to properly attend to a text after a full day spent online: “It was torture getting through the first page. I couldn’t force myself to slow down so that I wasn’t skimming, picking out key words, organizing my eye movements to generate the most information at the highest speed” (Rosenwald, Online).
Deep reading is also linked to slow reading; in fact there is a movement to promote the act of slow reading whereby a person taps out of social media and communication for the intended period, then attempts to fully engage with the text. It is designed to increase comprehension and pleasure, and reduce interference on the part of the internet and social media. The major tenet of the Slow Reading movement – which takes its cues from the Slow Food movement – is to read at your own pace, not be kowtowed by other influences such as the internet or smartphones.
Christian Vadendorpe in her essay “Reading on Screen: The New Media Sphere” presents a very useful taxonomy of reading approaches: “grazing mode”, where readers read continually, attempting to understand as much as possible (this most resembles deep reading); “browsing mode”, where like flicking through a magazine the reader scans for what interests them; finally “hunting mode”, which Vandendorpe says pertains to digital reading especially: ““In hunting mode, the reader seeks specific information. This mode is fairly recent, and became a real possibility only when alphabetical order was adopted for dictionaries, in around 1000AD” (Vadendorpre, p.205).[vi] When users read online content they are either “browsing” or “hunting”; acquiring particular information is the intent, not the reading itself as in “grazing”. A Scientific American article by Ferris Jabr about the changing way we read in the digital age details a 2005 study at San Jose State University regarding online reading habits; tellingly it reuses many of the key words that Vadendorpre mentions: “[The study] concluded that people reading on screens take a lot of shortcuts—they spend more time browsing, scanning and hunting for keywords compared with people reading on paper, and are more likely to read a document once, and only once”[vii] (Jabr, online).
In her blog post entitled “Science Has Great News for People Who Read Actual Books”, Rachel Grate maps the shape or pattern of reading in this “hunting” mode:
[O]ur reading habits have adapted to skim text rather than really absorb the meaning. A 2006 study found that people read on screens in an “F” pattern, reading the entire top line but then only scanning through the text along the left side of the page. This sort of nonlinear reading reduces comprehension and actually makes it more difficult to focus the next time you sit down with a longer piece of text.[viii]
An “F” shape connotes this reading movement normally associated with “hunting”, while a “Z” shape more accurately describe “grazing” which follows every line in sequence. Another example of how technological advancement disrupts reading approaches is that Google browsers include a “Find” tab capable of searching the text of each page. Skimming has become a thing of the past, now readers are conducted straight to the salient information.
Not that these reading strategies never existed before the internet. Roland Barthes confesses to the style of reading he adopts when dealing with classic writers like Dickens or Tolstoy: “our very avidity for knowledge impels us to skim or to skip certain passages…we boldly skip (no one is watching) descriptions, explanations, analyses, conversations” (Barthes, p.11).[ix] And the method he describes of racing to the end of a book, seeking to expedite the narrative striptease, is similar to the lustful approach taken by readers of digital material, where they assume certain expectations about immediacy and instant gratification.
Wardrip-Fruin thinks the same: “we engage in a rapid form of reading, where the impetus is more on progression than comprehension, more on rapidity than density” (Wardrip-Fruin, p.192). But the difference is that Barthes is advocating re-reading, at least that of great texts: “[H]as anyone ever read Proust, Balzac, War and Peace, word for word? (Proust’s good fortune: from one reading to the next, we never skip the same passage)” (Barthes, p.11). And re-reading represents a real spanner in the works for ebook vendors, publishers, or anyone else invested in ebooks sales: “Rereading, an operation contrary to the commercial and ideaological habits of our society, which would have us “throw away” the story once it has been consumed (“devoured”)” (ibid, p.15).
This said, observers commonly agree that the disjuncture between printed and electronic text that is affecting us as readers, is emblematic of the transitional phase in human civilization we find ourselves in. Unlike standard skills like speech and hearing, we needed to learn how to read, repurposing out mental software along the way: “The brain was not designed for reading. There are no genes for reading like there are for language or vision. But spurred by the emergence of Egyptian hieroglyphics, the Phoenician alphabet, Chinese paper and, finally, the Gutenberg press, the brain has adapted to read” (Rosenwald, Online). Today we are experiencing another sea change thanks to the internet, and the fusty, retrograde book could be holding us back:
Accepted by many as an “agent of change” in the Gutenberg revolution, the book is easily cast as a force of reaction in the information one. Its material lineaments stand accused of foisting a vast amount of ideological baggage on innocent people. Thus Landow (1992) sees its “center and margin, hierarchy and linearity” as fostering a malign “conceptual system”. The book is something he insists with some urgency “we must abandon” in order to go through “this paradigm shift, which marks a revolution in human though” (Duguid, p.496).[x]
Cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard introduces this term of the simulacrum – a simulation that divests and replaces its original. The issue of the simulacra as he points out “is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real, that is to say an operation of deterring every real process via its operational double, a programmatic, mestastable, perfectly descriptive machine” (Baudrillard, p.2).[xi] It does not require a great imaginative leap to see digital books as simulacra of their analogue selves. They are designed to directly simulate older forms of reading while at the same time supplanting them.
As mentioned, reading is not an intrinsic skill like walking or speaking, it is acquired, and arrived relatively late in human evolution. For such a recent acquisition then it would not make sense for internet technology to completely renounce reading methods, and so affordances to the older technology have been made. Web articles and word documents most resemble pre-modern scrolls, with the action of navigating up and down called “scrolling”. Similar to the migration from scrolls to codexes, single-screen reading devices have adopted fake pagination in moving or flicking through pages, with Apple ebooks realistically conveying the visual effect and even the sound of cascading pages.
Johanna Drucker in her article “The Virtual Codex from Page Space to E-Space” confirms this knowing replication of a printed book’s formal features:
[In] e-book design, we see familiar formats, text/image relations, visual cues that suggest a book, and a number of other navigation devices (as per above) meant to make “use for novices” easy. The assumption that familiar forms translate into ease of use may be correct in the first iteration of electronic book-type presentations (Drucker, p.220).[xii]
Drucker’s phrase “this iteration” is telling. It suggests the idea that we are in a transitional phase – who can say what formal features of the printed page will be reneged when in the future digital natives won’t need them.
Some of the limitations of ebooks, like the inability to flick through multiple pages, or the haptic feel of how much remains to be read, have been difficult to render accurately digitally. The progress bar is a harsher representation of how much in a book is left; similarly the Amazon Kindle offers an expected completion time, which serves to prod readers once they start to lag or become distracted, by condescendingly increasing the time. Further this counter to how much is left builds on this culture of instant information: “The substitution of pages and volume with a slider that indicates the depth or place within the whole reinforces our necessity to understand information in a gestalt, rather than piecemeal” (Drucker, p.219). For displaying battery life in electronic devices this method is fine, in ebooks however it harries the reader.
Ferris Jabr in The Scientific American mentions new innovations in ebooks intended to provide a fuller and more realistic reading experience. Students from KAIST Institute of Information Technology Convergence in South Korea working with Apple iBook API have created new, more representational ebook features. For instance, users hold their thumb left or right to size up how much of the ebook remains, the screen displaying the edges of the number of pages – exactly like in a real book. It is also possible to dog-ear pages or flick to the front or back at one time.[xiii] The video footage of the technology is impressive but the whole effect is very uncanny. Why this drive to simulate real books, Jabr asks, when ebooks and web articles are much freer, open and intuitive?
[Why] are we working so hard to make reading with new technologies like tablets and e-readers so similar to the experience of reading on the very ancient technology that is paper? Why not keep paper and evolve screen-based reading into something else entirely? Screens obviously offer readers experiences that paper cannot (Jabr, online).
Also with this simulacrum, how do you determine its value? The cost of producing printed books is self-evident – factoring in paper, printing and binding – but ebooks remain an unknown quantity. This is in the nature of the simulacrum: should something in imitation of something else with undisputed value automatically assume that value, or not? Wardrip-Fruin queries this: “Instead of a corporeal text, the sheer materiality of page and book, we have the ghost text of cyberspace, a figure as untouchable as it is ephemeral. It’s obvious this type of text will generate far less investment in the act of reading” (Wardrip-Fruin, p.195).
Printed books have their digital forms beaten for immersion and usability, but it is difficult to say for how long more they can remain dominant. One area where digital books trump their printed counterpart is in their non-linearity. How the printed page compartmentalises thinking and places it under a tight-fitting linear structure may not necessarily be the best way to render the writer’s thoughts. Now inter-connected hyperlinks better capture the free-associative human mind. Paul Duguid sees the restricting influence of the printed book as something to put behind us:
[T]he book is easily cast as a force of reaction in the information [age]. Its material lineaments stand accused of foisting a vast amount of ideological baggage on innocent people. [Landow] sees its “center and margin, hierarchy and linearity” as fostering a malign “conceptual system”. The book is something he insists with some urgency “we must abandon” in order to go through “this paradigm shift, which marks a revolution in human though” (Duguid, p.496).
Hyperlinks add greater functionality to a stolid format that has existed unchanged for centuries. Efforts by writers to break free from their book’s linear constraints before hyperlinks can be seen in footnotes, marginalia and addenda, with the inclusion of an index to enable searching or “hunting”. Where hyperlinks diverge from these though is in their precision and immediacy. Once references pointed the reader in the general right direction but let them make their own way, now hyperlinks deliver the reader straight to the door, as it were. Johanna Drucker points out the benefits but also limitations of hyperlinks:
[If the hyperlink] merely extends the traditional reference function of bibliography or footnotes, it does so in a manner that is radically distinct in electronic space by the immediacy with which a surrogate can be called. Links either retrieve material or take the reader to that material, they don’t just indicate a reference route (Drucker, p.219).
However it is in this immediacy where something is lost. With the accelerated rate of reading online (“hunting” according to Vadendorpre), it is hyperlinks that facilitate this rapid progress. The speed at which readers hurtle through text while it is instantly gratifying does not contribute to any clear understanding of the text. Nicholas Carr talks about the aerial bombardment of hyperlinks and other distracting internet trinkets, that in a sinister way may be designed for the purposes of distraction:
The faster we surf across the Web—the more links we click and pages we view—the more opportunities Google and other companies gain to collect information about us and to feed us advertisements… The last thing these companies want is to encourage leisurely reading or slow, concentrated thought. It’s in their economic interest to drive us to distraction (Carr, Online).
This ties in with general reading strategies on digital devices, which favours speed and progression – satisfied with the gist of the text – over the slow and deep reading which accrues meaning and detail.
A further adverse effect of hyperlinks as outlined by several different critics is how it eliminates discovery. Momentary speed-bumps or obstacles such as unfamiliar words or content can be circumnavigated easily. Readers no longer expect to be left in the dark, with the breezy, instant content found online shot through with explanatory links. As a consequence readers are losing the ability to exist in abstraction for more than a few seconds. Admittedly it takes an enquiring mind to click on a link and read the thread, but it is the minimum amount of curiosity producible, in contrast to the valuable exercise of looking things up in a book. Wardrip-Fruin writes that the hyperlink “seems to call us to discovery – at least on the surface – allowing us to move from text to text with ever-increasing ease. However, in doing so, it jeopardizes the very core of the reading process, which is discovery” (Wardrip-Fruin, p.197).
Hyperlinks are not a friend to scholarly interpretation. As Barthes mentions, the value of rereading is in finding something new or interpreting them differently; this variety is very important. Further, in how hyperlinks distort the chronology of the text, Barthes points to rereading as a form of proto-hyperlinkage: “[R]ereading draws the text out of its internal chronology (“this happens before or after that”) and recaptures a mythic time (without before or after): it contests the claim which would have us believe that the first reading is a primary, naïve, phenomenal reading” (Barthes, p.16). Why this type of “hypertext” is preferable is because it is open to human interpretation. Mental and neurologic connections are vastly superior to an operational hyperlink, as Wardrip-Fruin observes: “[The hyperlink allows] us to move from text to text with ever-increasing ease. However, in doing so, it jeopardizes the very core of the reading process, which is discovery” (ibid, p.197). The features of rereading according to Barthes are very closely aligned to the action of digital reading today, freeing the text from its planned chronological sequence, but this also reflects poorly on digital reading, where the author’s intended path and the feeling of newness and discovery are being scuppered by hyperlinks.
A successful hyperlink will direct the user to only one location; an unsuccessful hyperlink will deliver a “404 not found” error message. A successful mental connection on the other hand can produce a frisson or flourish of thought. The possibility of human error is welcomed (James Joyce: “Errors are the portals to discovery”). Error of a creative kind is impossible (so far) for a computer to replicate; on shoddy, false, human assumptions improbable and profound connections can be made.
Following on from Barthes’ point, what else we are losing is the ability to daydream. Surfing the internet and following successive links has taken the place of real and valuable daydreaming, creative and fruitful distraction as distinct from the commercial distraction Nicholas Carr talks about. A 2013 article appearing on Buzzfeed no less mapped the neurological responses of browsing online and found it to be the same as day dreaming, prompting the same chemical reactions and secretion of dopamine.[xiv]
Letting the mind wander is an important part of the reading experience, linked to deep reading, that Barthes calls “drifting”. Like daydreaming, “[d]rifting occurs whenever I do not respect the whole” (Barthes, p.18). This might mean happily getting lost in the text: “[L]ike a cork on the waves, I remain motionless, pivoting on the intractable bliss that binds me to the text (to the world). Drifting occurs whenever social language, the sociolect, fails me… Thus another name for drifting would be: the Intractable – or perhaps even: Stupidity” (Barthes, p.19). Daydreaming, or the ability to “drift” as Barthes says, is important to the pleasure of the text, and is being replaced by hyperlinks and electronic devices.
The internet’s strength is also its weakness – in delivering more or less exactly what the user is searching for, it removes the need for them to encounter anything else. So for example with music streaming and personal music devices, the improved functionality of building a music library and designing playlists has replaced listening to the radio or other traditional fora for hearing new music. Similarly news websites, readers “hunting” for information are rarely surprised by what they find. How rarefied and selective the content we consume digitally is means that the element of serendipity is removed. As Ferris Jabr writes, “Supporting this research, surveys indicate that screens and e-readers interfere with two other important aspects of navigating texts: serendipity and a sense of control” (Jabr, online).
In conclusion, this essay comprehensively shows that digital reading on the screen of an electronic device is vastly different to the standard black type on white pages. We are slap-bang in the middle of a paradigm shift when it comes to reading; print or reading culture has never seen this rate of change before. A survey in The Atlantic finds that more American people are reading now than ever.[xv] Tablet computers and e-readers are widely available, whose display of ebooks may be responsible for revitalizing the industry. What the survey does not say however are the types of books being read in such quantity by the American public: should consuming Twilight or 50 Shades of Gray necessarily be celebrated, when they engender specious and accelerated reading habits similar to web browsing? But examining the merit of these books is a job for another essay. The web and ebooks have altered how we read in several ways. The sheer mass of content means that it is not possible to read (or “graze”) everything; readers must now “hunt” for content bearing any relevancy. Deep reading and the cogitation that this involves is being obstructed by other reading approaches. The efforts to capture the bookish quiddity of books by e-readers and other screened devices has resulted in a shallow simulacra of the books themselves. While linked texts are dynamic and interactive, letting the text break free from its linear confines, this formal feature may also be eliminating an essential, ineffable part of the experience of reading, which is serendipitous discovery. Finally while hyperlinks too might appear more open and democratic, they are shown to be much more prescriptive than as taken at first glance.
[i] Flood, Alison, “Ebooks can tell which novels you didn’t finish”, The Guardian (10 December 2014)
[ii] Flood, Alison, “Readers absorb less on Kindles than on paper, study finds”, The Guardian (19 August 2014)
[iii] Finkelstein, David and McCleery, Alistair (ed.), The Book History Reader
[iv] Malise, Jennifer, “How Surfing The Internet Mimics Daydreaming In Your Brain” Buzzfeed (30 July 2013)
[v] Madrigal, Alexis C., “The Next Time Someone Says the Internet Killed Reading Books, Show Them This Chart”, The Atlantic (6 April 2012)
[vi] Flood, Alison, “Readers absorb less on Kindles than on paper, study finds”, The Guardian (19 August 2014)
[vii] Finkelstein, David and McCleery, Alistair (ed.), The Book History Reader
[viii] Carr, Nicholas, “Is Google making us stupid?” The Atlantic (1 July 2008
[ix] Rosenwald, Michael “Serious reading takes a hit from online scanning and skimming, researchers say”, The Washington Post (6 April 2014)
[x] Valendrorpe, Christian, “Reading on Screen: The New Media Sphere”
[xi] Jabr, Ferris, “The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens” Scientific American (11 April 2013)
[xii] Grate, Rachel, “Science Has Great News for People Who Read Actual Books”
[xiii] Barthes, Roland, The Pleasure of the Text
[xiv] Duguid, Paul, “Material Matters: The Past and Futurology of the Book”
[xv] Baudrillard, Jean, Simulacra and Simulation
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Baudrillard, Jean, Simulacra and Simulation (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994)
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Drucker, Johanna. ‘The Virtual Codex from Page Space to E-space”
From A Companion to Digital Literary Studies
Duigid, Paul, “Material Matters: The Past and Futurology of the Book”
From The Book History Reader
Finkelstein, David and McCleery, Alistair (ed.), The Book History Reader (London: Routledge, 2002)
Flood, Alison, “Readers absorb less on Kindles than on paper, study finds”, The Guardian
(19 August 2014)
Flood, Alison, “Ebooks can tell which novels you didn’t finish”, The Guardian (10 December 2014)
Grate, Rachel, “Science Has Great News for People Who Read Actual Books” (September 22, 2014)
Hodgkins, Kelly, “Students demonstrate innovative iPad book page flip” (24 January 2012)
Jabr, Ferris, “The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens”, Scientific American (11 April 2013)
Madrigal, Alexis C., “The Next Time Someone Says the Internet Killed Reading Books, Show Them This Chart”, The Atlantic (6 April 2012)
Malise, Jennifer, “How Surfing the Internet Mimics Daydreaming In Your Brain”, Buzzfeed (30 July 2013)
Rosenwald, Michael “Serious reading takes a hit from online scanning and skimming, researchers say”, The Washington Post (April 6 2014)
Siemens, Ray and Schreibman, Susan (ed.), A Companion to Digital Literary Studies (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007)
Valendrorpe, Christian, “Reading on Screen: The New Media Sphere”,
From A Companion to Digital Literary Studies
Wardrip-Fruin, Noah, “Reading Digital Literature: Surface, Data, Interaction, and Expressive Processing”
From A Companion to Digital Literary Studies