But instead of busting into that can of worms, let’s ease it open slowly.
In a recent article, Notre Dame Professor Carol Phillips suggests that Millennials read for information, that they read with a purpose and are very good scanners. And while Millennials are known for their relatively short attention spans, Phillips suggests that “this is actually a functional adaptation to information-saturation.” We’re the social media generation, and if our attention is what you’re seeking, you’ve got to make sure your content is succinct and highly engaging.
And while this may be good news for marketers, as Phillips concludes, it certainly has a more negative impact on our ability to truly absorb information and our likelihood of actually picking up a book as technology continues to shorten our attention spans and distract us with a constant barrage of content.
“[It's] that state of constant distraction that allows people to avoid difficult realities and maintain self-deceptions. With the help of cell phones, e-mail and hand-held games, it’s easier to stay busy, in the Kierkegaardian sense, than it’s ever been.
Reading, in its quietness and sustained concentration, is the opposite of busyness. ‘We are so distracted by and engulfed by the technologies we’ve created, and by the constant barrage of so-called information that comes our way, that more than ever to immerse yourself in an involving book seems socially useful,’ Franzen says. ‘The place of stillness that you have to go to to write, but also to read seriously, is the point where you can actually make responsible decisions, where you can actually engage productively with an otherwise scary and unmanageable world.’”
For bibliophiles, reading is an escape, a sanctuary, a solo experience. But more than that, as Franzen suggests, reading is an activity that should be accompanied by no unnecessary distractions.
And yet, in comes the e-reader – the Kindle, the Nook, the iPad – threatening to turn the precious bound book into just another piece of technology into which we can plug our over-stimulated brains, just another app to flaunt on our fancy devices, just another piece of content for us to scan as we browse the Internet and update Facebook and Twitter (capabilities that are possible on most e-readers).
But sentimentality and biased opinions aside, there may be an even bigger problem lying ahead.
The fact of the matter is, technology is highly influential, and as Wired journalist Jonah Lehrer points out, “sooner or later every medium starts to influence the message.” As e-reader technology advances, and screens become flawlessly clearer, it will essentially feel “easier” to read from an e-reader than from an actual book. In fact, many people are already acknowledging this. And while this may seem like a positive change, scientific research actually suggests otherwise. Neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene‘s research shows that a reading pathway known as the dorsal stream is activated when we are forced to consciously pay attention to what we are reading, making the act of reading less automatic and more engaging, more likely to be retained. Reading is a different kind of experience than, say, enjoying the screen quality of an HD television. It shouldn’t be “easy” and it shouldn’t be automatic. And as technology makes reading easier, it’s difficult not to wonder if this will also effect our capacity and desire to read challenging books.
In addition to Dehaene’s research, author Nicolas Carr writes that many studies indicate that reading on a screen yields lower comprehension than reading from a printed page. He suggests that while our distraction and capacity for multi-tasking increases, we actually get less creative in our thinking.
And while these potential consequences of turning reading a book into just another technological experience can undoubtedly yield unfavorable results in regard to our intelligence, our distractedness, and our ability to retain information, there are other more sentimental reasons I’m not trading in my library card for a Kindle.
I enjoy the tactile experience of reading. I love the way a book feels. The way it smells, the way the pages turn. Also, books themselves can be a stimulus for social engagement, such as when a fellow subway passenger notices what I’m reading and strikes up a conversation. And of course, much like Ron Burgundy, I have many [leather-bound] books [and my house smells of rich mahogany]. Okay. Maybe just the part about the books. I treasure my bookshelf, and hope to one day have an entire room dedicated to books. A personal library is something to build and build upon over a lifetime.
Though my bibliophile heart flutters when I come across research that shows that people are more likely to read more and buy more books when they own an e-reader, I can’t help but wonder when the novelty will wear off and if those people will revert back to the amount they read before their e-reader.
Photo by gadl
And unlike movies, TV, and music, whose vessels of experience have been updated and adapted as technology improves, books have been part of human culture, in the same form, for thousands of years. Lehrer writes that with digital books, he fears “we will trade understanding for perception.” And what a sad fate that would be for our already impatient and over-saturated brains.
I know I’m not alone on my strong opinions about e-readers. There must be plenty of you out there who vehemently agree or disagree with me. So let’s hear it! What do you think?