Publishing Plasticity: Don’t fear the e-reader

Reading in print is different from reading digitally. One study has shown that students report longer reading times, but also higher multitasking, when they read e-textbooks compared to print ones. Another one found that “students who read texts in print scored significantly better on the reading comprehension test than students who read the texts digitally.” Michael S. Rosenwald says results like these have given rise to concern among neuroscientists that humans are “developing digital brains with new circuits for skimming through the torrent of information online,” and that “[t]his alternative way of reading is competing with traditional deep reading circuitry developed over several millennia.”

There are two claims here: one is that reading behaviour like skimming is taking over from slower, deeper reading, and I don’t disagree. The other claim is that “traditional deep reading circuitry developed over several millennia.” Rosenwald acknowledges that it’s not as simple as this when he writes: “There are no genes for reading like there are for language or vision.” (I’m no expert, so I’ll have to take his word for it that there are in fact genes for language or vision.) However, in the next sentence, he argues that “the brain has adapted to read … spurred by the emergence of Egyptian hieroglyphics, the Phoenician alphabet, Chinese paper and, finally, the Gutenberg press.” In other words, it’s not just that our brains are changing as individuals in response to our reading habits; it’s that humans as a species evolved the “trait” of being able to read in response to our use of specific technology.

I am curious to know which research Rosenwald is using. The implications of viewing reading as an evolutionary adaptation to certain tools are not small. This is an example of a teleological understanding of the history of reading. On this view, science, technology and the human brain march upward together on a linear path toward fulfilling the human goal of the Printed Book. It’s a neat and tidy view, and if we take it, we are more likely to defend print reading as inherently superior over digital technology, at least until we’ve had a few more centuries to evolve our new digital reading trait.

However, human beings did not join hands and agree to begin reading all at once, “several millennia” ago. If this evolutionary view of reading behaviour were correct, then people from cultures where literacy became widespread only a few centuries ago would be centuries “behind” on reading skills, print or digital. But reading is not an evolutionary trait; it is a skill that can be mastered, or lost, in a single generation. Neuroplasticity is different from evolution.

This brings us back to the first claim, that reading behaviour like skimming is taking over from slower, deeper reading. If we are doing more and more of our reading digitally (which we are), and if digital reading gives rise to behaviour like skimming (which it appears to), and if skimming results in less cognition and understanding (as many psychological studies suggest), then we have a problem.

As we attempt to interpret these findings and consider how they should inform our choices as publishers, I think we should be cautious before we draw any sweeping conclusions based on our limited research. A December 2017 article in the Review of Educational Research “Reading on Paper and Digitally: What the Past Decades of Empirical Research Reveal” examined 36 psychological studies on the subject of print vs. digital reading. The authors state that to their knowledge, “this is the only systematic review on the topic of reading in different mediums since 1992 that juxtaposes the contemporary field of reading digitally against the long-established and deep-rooted research on reading in print.” The study leaves me with the impression that researchers have only just begun to investigate the differences between print and online reading, and that, unsurprisingly, further research is needed:

In addition to the aforementioned need for details on textual aspects, there is a need for more clarification regarding individual differences factors and text processing in print or digitally. Simply stated, individual difference factors are the variations or deviations among individuals with regard to the characteristics shown to play a significant role in human learning and development (e.g., working memory, academic ability, gender; Gagné & Glaser, 1987). In the case of reading in print and digitally, individual difference factors such as reading rate, vocabulary knowledge, and topic knowledge have been shown to be particularly pertinent. . . . Surprisingly, very few studies in this review considered such relevant individual difference factors as fluency or topic knowledge as potential explanations for performance outcomes between print and digital reading (Kendeou et al., 2011). Thus, assessing the role of individual differences factors could help clarify patterns in comprehension performance across mediums.

They conclude, carefully, that “medium plays an influential role under certain text or task conditions or for certain readers.” This measured answer makes sense to me. With respect to the question of how publishers should respond to the rise of digital reading, I think we have a responsibility to investigate our biases and personal reactions to these kinds of claims with curiosity, setting aside our personal preferences and assumptions about different reading formats, and thinking about what it is that the readers and writers in our specific areas (genre fiction, children’s literature, Indigenous authors and content, Black literature, etc.) need for their particular “text or task conditions.”

Rosenwald quotes Maryanne Wolf, a cognitive neuroscientist and author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain (which I have not read, for the record). Wolf worries that “the superficial way we read during the day is affecting us when we have to read with more in-depth processing.” To illustrate this, she describes herself reading a novel: “skimming, picking out key words, organizing my eye movements to generate the most information at the highest speed.” But her reaction to watching herself exercise these (frankly remarkable) skills, the same skills that university education expects of us, was surprising: “I was so disgusted with myself.”

I think this illustrates how odd the panicked conversation about digital reading really is. Yes, reading in different contexts places emphasis on different kinds of skills. If print reading is falling to the wayside, I don’t think publishers need to clutch desperately at it as though it is a thread by which human intellect hangs.  We should absolutely study the different affordances of each medium, but not from the point of view that one is inherently better. Wolf points out that “the brain is plastic its whole life span” and is “constantly adapting.” Publishers need only take inspiration from that.

2 Replies to “Publishing Plasticity: Don’t fear the e-reader”

  1. Amazing post (more like essay!), thank you!

    Annie made a great point about the difference between skimming, scanning, and deep reading in her post*: “These techniques are taught in schools to new readers and learners of a new language to help them get the general overview of a text (skimming) or to pull out important or specific facts from the text (scanning). These techniques help a reader process large amounts of information that may be frustrating to read otherwise, especially for a new reader or someone unfamiliar the language.”

    I also really liked how you looked to the research, and pointed out a major flaw with the argument that our brain has adapted to read. Looking at it from a perspective that different cultures began reading at vastly different points in time and in different ways, and today are all reading in the same way, I think that then we should also have no problem learning to read digitally. It’s not that we can’t, it’s that we either haven’t been taught or don’t want to learn.

    Also, like you said, I think it’s important that we remember the body of research looking at digital reading is still very new, and as such we should be cautious in making sweeping generalization about different ways to read.

    *https://tkbr.publishing.sfu.ca/pub802/2018/04/thinking-in-tweets/

    1. Thank you! Annie’s post made me rethink my comment (in response to Ellen’s annotation) that there’s nothing wrong with multitasking. I mean, it can be fine, but it is also important to consider the cognitive costs. This was a really fun topic, so thank you both for the question and for the time you took to read and respond.

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