Did anyone catch the not that long ago article in American Scientific, The Reading Brain in the Digital Age? I know I mention digital versus print here often but I can’t help myself, it’s like a mosquito bite I can’t stop scratching. Plus, I find the arguments fascinating and the responses to them even more so. We are in the midst of a technological disruption, a cultural shift, and I am going to chew this piece of gum until there is no flavor left in it.

The article touches on, and links to, the most recent studies on our reading brains and the print and digital question. Instead of asking which is better, the article wants to know what the differences are. Because there are differences, some large and some negligible. I’m not going to rehash the whole thing, instead I want to zoom in on the issue of navigation, a problem I haven’t seen much discussion about.

I love my Kindle for reading away from home. I read on it daily and have never had any trouble with concentration, comprehension, or remembering what I read. What I do have difficulty with is navigation. Apparently this is a major problem for ebooks for several reasons.

The brain regards letters as physical objects; it learns to recognize letters in the same way it learns to tell the difference between apples and oranges. The brain also perceives the entirety of a text as a physical landscape. As we read we make mental maps like we do when we drive around town or take a walk in the woods — we construct the terrain of a book. This is why we can remember that Anna and Vronsky first met at the top of the right-hand page about a quarter of the way into the book. And if we want to find that paragraph it is fairly easy to do.

Ebooks, however, are missing the elements necessary for us to make mental maps. We are presented one page at a time and it is only ever one page, there is no left page or right page. We have no physical book in our hand so we cannot tell how long the book is, approximately where in the book that paragraph of Anna meeting Vronsky is, nor where we currently are reading in relation to it. Sure, there is that precentage bar on the bottom of the screen and on my iPad it actually has page numbers and tells me how many pages until I reach the end of the chapter, but the overall sense of the book as a whole is missing. So when I want to turn back and reread that paragraph of the fateful first meeting, I can’t. I can type Anna and Vronsky in the search box on my ereader but that isn’t going to help me at all. I won’t be able to find the paragraph unless I remember a unique phrase or word or had the good fortune to place a digital bookmark at or near the very spot.

It is this navigational problem that is the reason why I, and a good many other people, say they like ebooks fine but still prefer to read print. It wasn’t until digital reading came along that researchers realized just how important being able to map the book’s terrain is for reading. A few studies suggest that the navigation issue impairs reading comprehension. I think this is an extremely important finding to consider as schools and publishers push e-textbooks on students. So far e-textbooks have not taken off because students who have used them tend to not like them.

Personally, I only read straightforward books on my Kindle because of the navigation issues. Even with structurally standard books I have been frustrated a number of times when I am suddenly reminded of something that happened earlier in the book and want to go back and read that part again but because it didn’t strike me as important at the time I didn’t mark the passage and so can’t find it.

I am in the middle of reading Renata Adler’s book Pitch Dark, a structurally tricky book. There are thoughts, words and phrases that are like musical themes in a way. They appear and then disappear only to appear again later but in a slightly different way. As soon as I picked up on this I went back to the beginning of the book and marked each “theme” and indicated the page number it next appears on. As I get further along, I am writing in the margin the next page and the last page so I have a trail I can follow forward and back. But this requires a lot of flipping around in the book. In paper this is easy to do since I have the mental map and can remember the when and where a particular theme was last mentioned. I would not be able to do this on my Kindle. Or rather, I could, but it would be a long and tedious process that would completely wreck the reading experience.

I am doing an experiment though. I started reading Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room last weekend. I assumed I had it in print but when I went to my Woolf shelves I discovered, to my horror, that I was mistaken. I wanted to start reading right away because Danielle and I decided to read it together, so I downloaded it to my iPad (it was published in 1922 so is in the public domain and available for free). I am only on page 27, so not far. The book’s structure is not completely straightforward but it also isn’t a complicated Woolfian tangle. Highlighting is easy. Reading is pretty easy in spite of the “page” being a bit too bright though I am concerned about trying to read for longer than an hour. I’ll see how that goes. And since it is early in the book I haven’t needed to go back to any earlier pages.

But the navigation issue has been in my mind since I decided to start reading on my iPad; so much so that I feel anxious about it. I’ve been tempering my anxiety with the knowledge that if it gets suddenly frustrating I can go to a bookstore and buy a print copy. I will anyway, I want the paper copy on my shelf. But I am willing, in the name of experimenting, to stick with the ebook for now. I’ll be sure to let you know how it goes.

Do be sure, however, to pop over to Scientific American and read the article. It is a really good encapsulation of what we know so far about the differences between reading paper and reading digital.

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