The Physical Landscape of Words
I have always felt bothered by e-books. As an engineer and a technologist, as someone who owns a Google Home and studies computer science and knows how to solder, I should love e-books. But as a writer and a poet I kind of hate them.
I like the idea of e-books. I like the idea of not lugging around a huge novel. I like the idea of sharing a virtual library with my father, who does love e-books. I like the idea of having the definition of a word at the touch of my fingertip. I like the idea of minimizing my physical footprint.
And yet, e-books bother me. I have a Kindle and it is a beautiful device, a testament to engineering prowess. But I don’t like my inability to flip through the pages. The percentage-done indicator stresses me out, but when I turn it off I wonder how far along I am. I once bought Mark Strand’s Collected Poems to read on my Kindle while traveling and it was a terrible, empty experience. I am normally an enthusiastic and proselytizing early adopter of technology, but with e-books I struggle to be a cheerleader or even a devil’s advocate.
Recently, I learned about how our brains handle this funny act we call reading.
Reading is a strange and relatively recent invention. For most of our evolutionary history we talked, maybe we drew pictures. As writing was invented, we co-opted processes and places already in the brain to deal with these new and intricate symbols that, tied together, could create great and varied meaning. Our brains improvised: we used regions of the brain dedicated to spoken language, motor coordination, and visual object identification to read words on a page. The brain learned to treat words not as strings of symbols but as physical objects in space.
This explains why I can remember exactly where on a page I read something, even if I don’t remember what exactly I read. It also explains why e-books fail me in so many ways. Though they try to replicate some aspects of physical books, they fail to give me that sense of location. This doesn’t even touch on the difficulty of reading texts online: the bar on the side of the screen is a poor bearing, impaired by changing your screen size and often disappearing when unused. It’s incredibly hard to find your place while on a computer.
This concept of words as objects makes so much sense to me intuitively that it vindicates my dislike and distrust of e-books. And yet still I cringe at my hesitation to embrace digital text. Sure, I surround myself with books, big, heavy, physical books I lug home from the library, but I also surround myself with computers. Something is not quite straight.
The evolutionary argument that the brain reads using visual object identification does not assert that reading on e-books or on computers is inherently worse or harder than reading a physical book. Nor does it suggest that we should throw away the technology entirely. Rather, we haven’t fully adapted to these new ways of reading.
Given that our brains didn’t evolve to read, it’s possible that as our reading practices change, the way we learn to read will also change. Maybe not for you or I — we may be stuck with our reading brains as they are — but toddlers who feel comfortable with computers might essentially get new software for their brains. Which is not to say toddlers aren’t learning to read with physical books: I have many nieces and nephews and they all have stacks of physical books alongside access to computers. Still, it’s an interesting thought. Because our brain kind of hacked into the ability to read, it’s possible that the way it does the hacking will change over time.
The metaphor of words as objects is so beautiful. One article about the neuroscience of all this, from Scientific American, says that “the human brain may also perceive text in its entirety as a kind of physical landscape.” To our brains, words are literally things we can hold and places we can visit, regardless of how they are presented to us, which is so tenuous and resonant I don’t mind that I read it online.
Learn more with Ferric Jabr’s article in Scientific American The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens or Maryanne Wolf’s book Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain.
Note: The opinions expressed by guest bloggers at the Submittable blog are theirs alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Submittable.
Katy Ilonka is currently pursuing a PhD in computer science at Columbia University, working on how computational tools can help interpret and generate creative language. More info at katygero.com.