There’s an interesting piece in last week’s New York Times Review of Books about how the invention of the book changed reading and the way we process information, and riffs on how the age of the e-reader might – or might not – do the same thing. It’s a good reminder that what we consider “normal” in the way we process information is as much a function of how that information is presented to us as it is what that information is.
Pre-books, scrolls were the default reading experience – and that meant people had to read things in a very particular way: From start to finish, unrolling the manuscript to reveal information bit by bit. Then came the book – or codex, as it was called. It was small, it was portable. But more than that:
It created a very different reading experience. With a codex, for the first time, you could jump to any point in a text instantly, nonlinearly. You could flip back and forth between two pages and even study them both at once. You could cross-check passages and compare them and bookmark them. You could skim if you were bored, and jump back to reread your favorite parts. It was the paper equivalent of random-access memory, and it must have been almost supernaturally empowering. With a scroll you could only trudge through texts the long way, linearly.
It may seem obvious now, but it probably was a fairly revolutionary experience. (As this parody of how medieval monks struggled to understand the newfangled technology shows – it’s the second time I’ve posted it, but it is a classic: )
So are we in for a similar revolution with the advent of e-books? The article makes the case that there are huge advantages to the current physical form of the book that allow for dense, non-linear reading, mostly because e-books aren’t well-structured to allow random viewing of pages. (You can go to any point in an e-book, or course, but usually that’s by search rather than by simply flipping open a physical book.)
But e-books and nonlinearity don’t turn out to be very compatible. Trying to jump from place to place in a long document like a novel is painfully awkward on an e-reader, like trying to play the piano with numb fingers. You either creep through the book incrementally, page by page, or leap wildly from point to point and search term to search term. It’s no wonder that the rise of e-reading has revived two words for classical-era reading technologies: scroll and tablet. That’s the kind of reading you do in an e-book.
That may be true. But then again, monks probably thought there were huge advantages to scrolls that books would undermine. I’m sure it felt natural for the to read on scrolls – just as things we’re habituated to feel natural. Including reading books. The point is that we adapt to technology as much as – probably more – than technology adapts to us.
We’re accustomed to much faster edits of movies now, thanks to a generation of MTV videos; we instinctively look for search boxes on sites; we understand that we can reach across the world and look up random pieces of information; we’re frustrated when we can’t find a ground-level photo of a street we’ve never been to. What new types of information and ways of accessing it will feel natural to our children?
And shouldn’t we in the news information business be spending far more time and effort in figuring out some of those ways?
So I’m sure we’ll change the way we read, just as we’ve changed the way we process information online, search, and dive into databases. We can’t stop that tide – and we probably shouldn’t. But we should think hard about our most basic assumptions of how we get information, because they’re likely to be upturned in the years to come.