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The Future Of Reading

12 February 2012

From Wired:

I’m nervous about the rise of the Kindle and the Nook and the iBookstore. The book, after all, is a time-tested technology. We know that it can endure, and that the information we encode in volutes of ink on pulped trees can last for centuries. That’s why we still have Shakespeare Folios and why I can buy a 150 year old book on Alibris for 99 cents. There are so many old books!

And yet, I also recognize the astonishing potential of digital texts and e-readers. For me, the most salient fact is this: It’s never been easier to buy books, read books, or read about books you might want to buy. How can that not be good?

. . . .

I worry that this same impulse – making content easier and easier to see – could actually backfire with books. We will trade away understanding for perception. The words will shimmer on the screen, but the sentences will be quickly forgotten.

Let me explain. Stanislas Dehaene, a neuroscientist at the College de France in Paris, has helped illuminate the neural anatomy of reading. It turns out that the literate brain contains two distinct pathways for making sense of words, which are activated in different contexts. One pathway is known as the ventral route, and it’s direct and efficient, accounting for the vast majority of our reading. The process goes like this: We see a group of letters, convert those letters into a word, and then directly grasp the word’s semantic meaning. According to Dehaene, this ventral pathway is turned on by “routinized, familiar passages” of prose, and relies on a bit of cortex known as visual word form area (VWFA). When you are a reading a straightforward sentence, or a paragraph full of tropes and cliches, you’re almost certainly relying on this ventral neural highway. As a result, the act of reading seems effortless and easy. We don’t have to think about the words on the page.

But the ventral route is not the only way to read. The second reading pathway – it’s known as the dorsal stream – is turned on whenever we’re forced to pay conscious attention to a sentence, perhaps because of an obscure word, or an awkward subclause, or bad handwriting.  (In his experiments, Dehaene activates this pathway in a variety of ways, such as rotating the letters or filling the prose with errant punctuation.) Although scientists had previously assumed that the dorsal route ceased to be active once we became literate, Deheane’s research demonstrates that even fluent adults are still forced to occasionally make sense of texts. We’re suddenly conscious of the words on the page; the automatic act has lost its automaticity.

This suggests that the act of reading observes a gradient of awareness. Familiar sentences printed in Helvetica and rendered on lucid e-ink screens are read quickly and effortlessly. Meanwhile, unusual sentences with complex clauses and smudged ink tend to require more conscious effort, which leads to more activation in the dorsal pathway. All the extra work – the slight cognitive frisson of having to decipher the words – wakes us up.

So here’s my wish for e-readers. I’d love them to include a feature that allows us to undo their ease, to make the act of reading just a little bit more difficult. Perhaps we need to alter the fonts, or reduce the contrast, or invert the monochrome color scheme. Our eyes will need to struggle, and we’ll certainly read slower, but that’s the point: Only then will we process the text a little less unconsciously, with less reliance on the ventral pathway. We won’t just scan the words – we will contemplate their meaning.

Link to the rest at Wired

Passive Guy wonders if perhaps the typos and grammatical errors people complain about in some self-pubbed books really help the reader to contemplate the deeper meaning of what the author is trying to communicate.

Ebook/Ereader Technical

25 Comments to “The Future Of Reading”

  1. Ah, the neural anatomy of reading and our dorsal pathways. Reading those phrases, my brain was delighted to recognize what it was doing as it was doing it.
    The best, pure joy.
    Thank you.

  2. “I’m nervous about the rise of the Kindle and the Nook and the iBookstore”

    And I’m nervous about Iran getting a nuke. Just goes to show how I could be worried about something actually important. So much for my illiterate brain.

  3. Maybe I’m being dismissive (and I haven’t read the full piece), but this strikes me as a non-problem.

    Some people read fast, some read slow. I’m a fast reader. With good clean prose, I actually have to force myself to slow down a little so I don’t skim over anything. But when an author is employing interesting constructions, unusual metaphors, archaic collective nouns, or simply staggeringly beautiful prose, I naturally slow down.

    It’s the same on paper or with my Kindle. And if anything, I read marginally slower on my Kindle.

  4. So to turn on the dorsal pathway, you need smudged ink, bad handwriting, obscure words or awkward subclauses.

    This means that the reason he’s worried is because he’s assuming if you’re creating a book that you e-publish, the sentence structure is going to be simple as well. There won’t be any complex clauses, or unusual words, or deep concepts. Those are only available in the printed form.

    Because ebooks, ya know. Only for those people who read, but aren’t really for people who think.

  5. Passive Guy wonders if perhaps the typos and grammatical errors people complain about in some self-pubbed books really help the reader to contemplate the deeper meaning of what the author is trying to communicate.

    I was just about to say something along those lines!

  6. My dissertation is on the reading pathways, so I follow Dehaene’s work closely. This journalist’s interpretation is … a stretch. He’s somehow equating “being conscious of the words” with “learning more” or “thinking more deeply”, and they’re really very different things. I mean, you could also jump to the opposite conclusion that spending all your energy on decoding the words prevents you from thinking about the content. Granted, I do think there’s one study(not by Dehaene, and that I haven’t read except through the popular media), that found that weird fonts make you remember more. But that’s a far cry from saying “Oh, if we make things harder to read, we’ll learn more.”

  7. By the same logic, the invention of the printing press is the REAL source of the problem. And improvements in paper and printing technology is worse yet.

    It’s in the writing. Complex ideas will slow the reader down. Quick cliches will allow them to skim through. Adding smudges won’t make those quick cliches any more intellectually valuable. And clear readable type will only allow the reader to concentrated on the text more with more complex text.

    If you want a challenge, make the type as small as you can. Or use a reader which allows you to install and choose weird fonts. Read foreign language texts.

    There is a lot to be said for paper books, but the preservation of brain function due to printing errors is seriously not one of them.

    • Yeah, I think PG needs a category for posts of this type. Maybe “Hey, you kids with e-readers, get off my lawn!”

      Let’s face it, you could do a search and replace on these things to change Amazon, digital, and physical book to Gutenberg, moveable type, and hand-copied codex, then it works for a fifteenth century blog post. 650 years ago, I sure folks were worried about how printed books would never be as beautiful as what a trained scribe could produce. And just think how terrible it was when the scroll were replaced by codex. And papyrus will never last as long clay tablets.

  8. Actually – in the extended report, the scientist suggests that increased vocabulary difficulty and varying phrasing and structure are the best way to access the dorsal path, but these things are so individual to the reader that it is not possible to scientifically measure. THAT is why he used the changed punctuation etc.

    SO – make your writing more interesting, add new vocabulary words and challenge yourself and your readers! That is what I take away from this!

    • Yeah, but there’s nothing inherently “better” about the dorsal path.

      • I think this is the key. The author of this article doesn’t give any reason for his assumption that using the dorsal path is better than not using it. From the article, I can’t see why he would make that assumption. As you said, spending more time focusing on understanding the words DOES NOT equal more time spent contemplating the concepts behind them.

        • I couldn’t agree with you more: there’s nothing inherently “better” about the dorsal path and possibly there’s nothing in it at all except for the fact that as a child starting to read, you use the dorsal path before moving to the (more automatic) ventral path.

  9. And here I thought that the whole purpose of traditional typography (to quote Wikipedia) was to “create a readable, coherent, and visually satisfying whole that works invisibly, without the awareness of the reader.”

  10. Mybwshldgtrdfspcsndvwlstmkthngshrdrtrdsthtnlschlrsndhghprstscnrd.*

    *Maybe we should get rid of spaces and vowels to make things harder to read so that only scholars and high priests can read.

  11. People are really reaching for anything they can grab hold of to make the public feel uncertain about investing in an ereader, aren’t they?

    I read somewhere than an 8th grade (6th grade?) average writing level was optimal for reaching an audience, because the majority of people could grasp your meaning and read easily without feeling stupid or intimidated. That didn’t mean you couldn’t use complex, unusual words, because when everything else was clear, it was more likely than not that they’d grasp the meaning of that word that was unfamiliar to them, creating a reward. It also didn’t mean that your 8th grade writing level was limited to concepts of the same level.

    So, to me, suggesting that something easy to read is bad seems incorrect. And suggesting you intentionally add errors or make it more difficult to read is a bad thing. At least the writer seems to be indicating a preference for the reader to be able to insert these errors themselves. I just can’t think that there are a lot of people who’d agree. I’d think it’d have to be a downloadable ap rather than a standard feature.

  12. Wow…I mean…wow. I don’t know what else to say and considering this was published in a major periodical. Guess it proves that having a paid editorial staff doesn’t guarantee quality of content. How did the “curators” of good taste let this one through?

  13. Has anyone noticed over the last few months how more and more of these digressionary articles are getting bandied about. I would go so far as to assume some devious mind in a (legacy publishing) backroom somewhere has been labouring for half a year to come up with a strategy to take the edge off the digital/indie knife. Hence the pseudo scientific, pseudo intellectual plethora of ‘serious’ discussion about the impact of ereaders and the cultural degeneration caused by same – clunky Franzen moments notwithstanding. Nothing like a good conspiract theory to kick the mind into the dorsal stream.
    iDM

  14. The wired article is just SO Sept 8, 2010 10:59 pm. Time and attitudes have already moved on. I felt the same way a couple years ago. Today I have 3 readers and a tablet. And a thousand real books.

  15. “Familiar sentences printed in Helvetica and rendered on lucid e-ink screens are read quickly and effortlessly. Meanwhile, unusual sentences with complex clauses and smudged ink tend to require more conscious effort, which leads to more activation in the dorsal pathway. All the extra work – the slight cognitive frisson of having to decipher the words – wakes us up.”

    I’m not sure when the last time I’ve read a print book with huge, prominent ink blots everywhere. Maybe I’m just lucky.

    That said, I think that the above quote points to the fallacy that this article is based on. What is a “familiar” sentence vs. an “unusual” sentence? Why can’t “unusual sentences” appear on an e-reader? I mean, if Finnegans Wake all of a sudden becomes coherent on my Kindle, sign me up.

    • Right? There is a ridiculous conflation of “easy-to-read writing” with “easy to read format.” Frankly I don’t understand what’s so much harder about reading challenging words in my hardcover than on an ereader. The format imo should never create a barrier to the reader. The words can do that, or not, on their own.

  16. PG, I love your wrap-up comment! Yeah, let’s have more typos and grammatical errors to challenge our readers! Let’s have different fonts, different spaces, changing margins, let’s make it really, really hard to read for our readers!

    Great goal…then people will really start to think…and write rabid letters to us writers!

  17. What a bunch of twaddle. If this guy wants to make text on his e-reader more difficult to read, let him smear the screen with peanut butter.

    And just for the record, I’m not worried about Iran getting a nuke. I’m worried about people lying to us about the Iranian nuclear program, same way they lied to us about WMDs in Iraq.

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