The New York Times | Does the Brain Like E-Books?

An older article from October 2009, but what a fascinating topic: “Is there a difference in the way the brain takes in or absorbs information when it is presented electronically versus on paper? Does the reading experience change, from retention to comprehension, depending on the medium?”

I especially enjoyed Maryanne Wolf ‘s (Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain) thoughts on reading. Interesting parallel to draw between Aristotle’s thoughts on the social good, and the process of learning to read:

“We can learn a great deal from a similar transition that the ancient Greeks made from orality (Socrates) to literacy (Aristotle). Socrates worried that the young would be deluded by the appearance of truth in seemingly impermeable text to think that they knew something before they had ever begun.

The habitual reader Aristotle worried about the three lives of the ‘good society’: the first life is the life of productivity and knowledge gathering; the second, the life of entertainment; and the third, the life of reflection and contemplation.

For me the formation of the ‘good reader’ follows a similar course. I have no doubt that the digital immersion of our children will provide a rich life of entertainment and information and knowledge. My concern is that they will not learn, with their passive immersion, the joy and the effort of the third life, of thinking one’s own thoughts and going beyond what is given.”

Also hard to disagree with Alan Liu’s thesis that we generally suffer from two types of bad reading: “tunnel vision” — scanning for information without a larger sense of context; and distraction — which is both the virtue and the vice of the hyperlink. The instant gratification for even more information is an omnipresent temptation with online reading, but are we trading breadth for depth in the reading experience? Maybe the most interesting idea that Liu adds is at the end of his letter — perhaps we need to find new metaphors to fashion our conceptions of digital texts. Concepts like book and library are “containing structures” — perhaps we would be better off thinking of Reading 2.0 as a “social experience.”

David Gelernter had an interesting way of putting things, in discussing the seeming trade-off between quality and quantity that the new technologies of reading facilitate : “The most important ongoing change to reading itself in today’s online environment is the cheapening of the word … [And yet] It’s up to us to insist that onscreen reading enhance, not replace, traditional book reading.”


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

tyler shores cambridge

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