Brains, Books and the Future of Print

Are print books really about to disappear, overtaken like horse-drawn carriages in the age of Detroit and the Ford Model T? Truth is, nobody knows. Nobody ever really knows what the future is going to hold, no matter how sure they sound in their predictions.

Certainly, for all the fuss made about the Kindle, more than 95% of book buyers are still opting for the print version ... except, possibly, in the hot romance and erotic fiction categories. Earlier this year, Peter Smith, of IT World, noted that "of the top 10 bestsellers under the 'Multiformat' category [of Fictionwise ebooks sold], nine are tagged 'erotica' and the last is 'dark fantasy.'" That's only one list, but it's an interesting side-note that makes sense: just as with the internet and cable television, there's a particularly strong appeal to getting access to what Smith calls "salacious" content without having to face the check-out clerk with the goods in hand.

Nevertheless, the point remains that a greater number of readers are switching over to ebooks in one format or another. So beyond the basic question of "will print books go away" (which I personally doubt, but again, nobody really knows the answer to), the questions I find more intriguing relate to if or how digital reading changes the reading experience and, perhaps, even the brains that do the reading.

Electronic readers like Kindle are too recent a development to have generated much specific, targeted research yet. But a montage of essays titled "Does the Brain Like Ebooks?" that appeared on the New York Times website this week offered some fascinating information and viewpoints on the subject. The collection had contributions from experts in English, neuroscience, child development, computer technology and informatics. And while the viewpoints differed, there was some general consensus about a few points:

1. Clearly, there are differences in the two reading experiences. There are things electronic books do better (access to new books in remote areas of the world, less lugging around, and easier searching for quotes or information after the fact). There are also things print books do better (footnote reading, the ability to focus solely on the text at hand, far away from any electronic distraction, and--oh, yeah. No battery or electronic glitch issues.)

To those factors, I would add two more: First -- I think it's important to remember that Kindle doesn't actually give you a book. It gives you access to a book. For people who don't want to cart around old volumes or make multiple trips to the library, that might be considered a good thing. But at least one potential downside to this feature became painfully clear to many Kindle readers this summer when Amazon reached into its customers' Kindle libraries and took back two books for which the company realized it did not possess the copyright. Ironically, the books were by George Orwell -- including 1984, his book about the perils of centralized information control. Access goes both ways.

Second ... one of the writers of the Times essays, Prof. Alan Liu at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said that he didn't think anyone really made serendipitous discoveries while browsing the shelves of a physical library (so losing a physical library wouldn't be a loss, at least in that sense). Perhaps not, because most people go to libraries with specific search goals in mind. But bookstores, on the other hand ... there I'd disagree. I often browse the aisles of my local bookstores, just to see what's new and what might catch my eye. Most of the books I buy, in fact, are items I discovered while browsing ... something that, ironically, electronic "browsers" do not allow.

Browsing, to my way of thinking, is what I do in Filene's Bargain Basement. The clothes there are a jumbled mass. So even if you go in looking, potentially, for a shirt, you might end up with a pair of slacks that just happened to be hanging nearby. Same with a bookstore. Same, in fact, with the print version of the New York Times I get every morning. I scan the pages just seeing what might catch my eye to read. Sometimes it's a photo that catches my eye, sometimes it's a leading paragraph, sometimes it's a headline, and sometimes it's a callout. Or, sometimes, I'll be reading one article and another on that same page will catch my attention--one I never would have sought out on my own. And my knowledge and understanding of the world is far better and broader for all those serendipitous juxtapositions.

Electronic media and browsers have many good qualities, but they're lousy for that kind of unspecific window shopping. Browsers don't browse. They help you do specific searches. Looking for a black coat, or that article Sam Smith wrote two months ago on synthetic sneaker soles? The internet is great. Not sure what you want? Heaven help you. So to lose physical collections of books, either in stores or on individual bookshelves, would make it harder to make those delightful side discoveries that take us out of our narrow fields of focus and interest and, potentially, broaden our minds.

2. In the case of adults, we probably process information similarly in both electronic and print formats ... with two important distinctions. The first distinction is that electronic books, with hyperlinks and connections to a world web of side-roads, offer far more distractions to the reader. In doing a research paper, this can be useful. But it also offers temptations to divert our attention from a deeper immersion in a story or text that our brains are poorly equipped to resist. (Apparently we change tasks, on average, every three minutes when working in an internet-connected environment.)

"Frequent task-switching costs time and interferes with the concentration needed to think deeply about what you read," cautioned Sandra Aamodt, the former editor of Nature Neuroscience and another of the Times essayists.

The second feature of electronic reading, which may compound this first effect, is that there is evidently something about an electronic medium, with its "percentage done" scale and electronic noises or gizmos, that makes us crave and focus on those rewards. Which is probably why electronic games are more addictive than board games. After a couple of rounds of solitaire with real cards, I'm done and ready to move on to something else. But I removed the solitaire software from my computer almost 20 years ago when I realized that I couldn't seem to tear myself away from it, once I started playing.

Is our comprehension and, more importantly, what Proust apparently called "the heart of reading"--"when we go beyond the author's wisdom and enter the beginning of our own," as one of the essayists, put it, impacted by a heightened drive to make progress through a text? If so, that would be a bad thing. So it seems a point worth studying further.

3. Most adults, however, at least have the ability to process longer and deeper contemplative thoughts from what we read, even if we don't always exercise that ability. But according to Maryanne Wolf, a cognitive neuroscientist and child development specialist at Tufts University, that ability to focus attention deeply and for a concerted length of time is learned, not innate. Children apparently have to develop neural pathways and circuits for reading, and those circuits are affected by the demands of the reading material. Chinese children learning a more symbolic and visual language, for instance, develop different circuits than English-speaking children.

So electronic reading ... especially with hyperlinks and video embeds and other potential distractions, could potentially keep young readers from developing some important circuits. As Wolf put it in her essay:

"My greatest concern is that the young brain will never have the time (in milliseconds or in hours or in years) to learn to go deeper into the text after the first decoding, but rather will be pulled by the medium to ever more distracting information, sidebars, and now, perhaps videos (in the new vooks). The child's imagination and children's nascent sense of probity and introspection are no match for a medium that creates a sense of urgency to get to the next piece of stimulating information. the attention span of children may be one of the main reasons why an immersion in on-screen reading is so engaging, and it may also be why digital reading may ultimately prove antithetical to the long-in-development, reflective nature of the expert reading brain as we know it." 


Interesting enough, the one computer scientist in the group was of the opinion that the best use of electronic books and capabilities was to enhance print books, not to replace them. But it's all interesting food for thought ... and, hopefully, more research as electronic readers find their way into more households and hands.

(Photo: Flickr/oskay)