Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

a bookish experiment

A great idea from Michael Bhaskar:

I’m convinced that all reading relies on rhythm in some way, a rhythm that is signified by breaks in the text. Turning the page establishes a certain rhythm, just as swiping a page on the iPhone does, or even the lines between tweets. Nonetheless what remains consistent is that we rely on the relationship between rhythm, break and comprehension for our experience of texts.

Big blocks of text have no break and rhythm, hence they are so intimidating to look at and confusing to read. Ebooks fundamentally work as they effectively recreate, if subtly alter, the rhythm and beat of reading long form texts.

My experiment would be something along the lines of: assemble the same text on every different reading platform, device and print mechanism possible.  Get a focus group and then either get them to read the passage on every device and answer a series of questions, or get everyone to read on one platform and answer a set series of questions.

The goal would be to try and work out how our understanding and enjoyment of texts shifts with the platform and the various rhythms established. With that data writers and publishers could then start to think of optimising, adapting and even composing content for different reading experiences.

Somebody do this!

10 comments:

  • Tony Comstock said...

    I'm writing my grant proposal right now! ;-)

  • [Comment part 1 of 2]


    Rhythm is one element of the way text is arranged and displayed sequentially, and I agree that rhythm is an important aspect of the quality of the physical experience with a particular reading medium. But I don't think it's the most important aspect of how different text media produce different text arrangements and therefore different reading experiences, including how they facilitate or interfere with comprehension, retension and retrieval.

    Text break signs -- whether spatially by pages, paragraphs, lists, etc. or by punctuation -- are even more important as means to convey meaning. And in the absence of such signifying clues, I often find myself imposing my own logic/meaning on a text.

    When I'm confronted by a big mass of text on a computer screen, I often copy and paste it into a text file (in my case, the app Journler which allows me to create and organize readily searchable entries of notes, clips, links, etc.) I first adjust margins and font (style and size, as one could do with the Readiblity function) for my personal taste -- I like fairly narrow text width but small type-size because I can take in more words at a time.

    But as important, as I skim, I insert paragraph breaks in long unbroken texts, identifying where the logic of the writing seems to be buried. Massive paragraphs almost always have a second or third topic sentence buried within them. They'll often have a sequence to an argument - main premise followed by sub-premises or results of premise -- or they are a series of examples supporting either the topic or summary sentence.

    In some ways, when I break up the text with my return key, it's like the process of underlining or highlighting a physical text -- engages my miind simultaneously in both reception and analysis of what's being communicated.

    So I guess what I'm getting at is that "rhythm" seems to me a far too limited/passive dimension of comparing reading experiences that's too hard to distinguish from closely related, but more extensive/active dimensions. Extensive, in that there are lots of ways physical text layout might affect reading comprehension or quality of a reading experience. Active, in that within a given type of reading medium, an author, editor or publisher can make many choices about the layout of texts that can convey (or fail to convey) meaning. And with some text media, the reader has ways of physically interacting with the text that can take advantage of the choices the author/editor/publisher has made -- or substitute for or overcome those choices.

    So (1) rhythm isn't the most important dimension of the physical differences of display techniques among text media and (2) in comparing different media or display types, how would we unwind the rhythm effect from other effects of display on comprehension, etc?

    Slightly related/slightly OT -- I love reading on my Kindle. It's especially wonderful for etexts or pdfs that are available on the web but until now only on my computer screen where I dislike reading anything long form. So kudos to readibility dimensions such as speed, concentration, comprehension, and stamina (much easier on the eyes, back etc than the computer).

    But I find that with the Kindle I don't have nearly the same ability to retrieve my reading by comparison to reading books - recalling a particular passage or name of a character in a novel; remembering a fact or where I read something in non-fiction.

  • [Comment part 2 of 2]


    I always knew that part of the memory retrieval process for me involved where physically on a page I could "see" what I was trying to retrieve. But it also seems to involve where withiin a volume the item is found (in a 400 page book is it about p 80 or 250?) -- something that isn't nearly as subliminally obvious on the Kindle when compared with a physical book. Retrieval also seems to involve such seemingly extraneous physical impressions as the paper weight, the size of the page, and even margins.

    And above all the cover! I can glance at a cover of a physical book I read decades ago, and I rarely need to check the table of contents or flip through the inside to have a strong orientation about the book, what I thought of it, why I've retained it on my shelves, etc. I can look at the list of books or articles in my Kindle list I've read sometime during the past six months and not be able to distinguish them from the Kindle's title/author list. Rather, I have to open an item and look at the TOC or skim a few pages to reorient my recollection process.

    Mentally retrieving Kindle reading is even worse than retrieving texts from web pages. All Kindle text is displayed in the same fashion (font, color, size of page etc)., so I have no visual or physical cues available to unconsciously differentiate or tag the content.

    If Kiindle is going to work for me long-term, I'm going to need to create a few gimmicks to substitute for what a physical books provide. First, amazon really ought to make the Kindle contents organizable into folders, or with tags, quicky notes, etc. I can't even retitle or change the name of an author that's awkwardly handled by Kindle. E.g., books by the same author sometimes use different arrangements of the author's name (frex sometimes sorted by last name, sometimes by first name -- so even amazon-ordered items by the same author aren't reliably sortable alphabetically).

    Second, at least for non-fiction, I'm going to have to do more notetaking on the Kindle (highlighted passages, etc) and then get those materials transferred over to my computer where they can merge into my other content-handling applications (reading notes, my books management app Bookpedia, which btw grabs books covers off the internet, giving me some of those essential visual memory tags).

    What's become clear is that, for recalling materials in etexts, I can't rely on my old physical "stack search" methods of shelved books (whether those books are in my physical possession or are in a library but on my mental "physical stacks").

    I wonder whether kids who have grown up reading more on electronic than physical media have similar problems. Or whether my experience is simply due to having grown up with the tight link between physical text and meaning, and therefore I have a need to find substitute aids for retention and retrieval when all I have is the electronic text.

    Here's hoping, at least for those of us in older generations, that future e-readers are able to provide color, graphics, etc. so that each book can have a somewhat differentiated display. It's not that I need the bells and whistles for the "reading" part of the reading experience, but I'm becoming convinced I need them for the "remembering" part of e-reading.



  • 3 John 1:13 said...

    In a low-tech way, this has already been tried. Kind of.

    The Dead Sea Scrolls are full of poetic texts. Some are Biblical in nature, others are not. Very few of them however, are written any differently from regular prose texts. Even when compositions bear explicit musical designations ("song," "hymn," etc.), there are no line breaks, no stanzas, no nothing. Just big blocks of text, with a blank space every column or so, to indicate what appear to be the spaces between major sections of the scroll.

    By contrast, the Masada manuscript of the book of Ben Sira (which was copied within 100 years or so of the material from Qumran) as well as a few Biblical passages from the Dead Sea Scrolls, are written in what would become, by the Medieval period, something close to the conventional method for copying Hebrew poetic texts. That is to say, corresponding "lines" of poetry are written on opposite sides of the column, with a small blank space between them to indicate the caesura.

    This suggests a pair of competing ideas about how poetry should be written down and read. One was eventually abandoned, while the other became standard practice. Apparently then, one option came to be regarded as better than the other.

    So even back then, people seem to have liked smaller chunks instead of bigger ones.

    I have no data on the popularity of Kindling, however.

  • Talk to someone in print media marketing. Brief sentences, fragments, many hyphens, and lots of blank, white space on the page. These help keep the reader's attention, and therefore affects the reader's experience.

  • Tony Comstock said...

    Also maybe useful, for perspective if nothing else:

    Take a look at early films. They're often nothing more than a camera at the back of a theater recording a stage performance. Early filmmakers hadn't realized that film was not merely a different distribution medium for theater, but was in fact a new medium that required the invention of an entirely new language with its own vocabulary and syntax.

    We're only just starting.

  • I'm not sure what the polite response is here. I am so rarely the good example of anything. Anyway, it was cool to have my comment commended to others. Just wanted to say thanks, Professor Jacobs.

    And one other thing: The pseudonym is my favorite part of the post. You should look it up. Indeed, all Scripture is profitable. Even for posting stuff on Text Patterns.

  • I second Tony's remark about films - we are indeed facing "a new medium that required the invention of an entirely new language with its own vocabulary and syntax". So we can't simply extend an assessment of "reading experience" from one type of textual display to another. There are some differences in essence that need to be captured.

    Thanks for the comments "promo". My remarks wound up nattering on a bit, but as I was writing, it seemed to me that "reading" involves lots more than the immediate experience of decyphering meaning from a text display. So I treated your comment space a bit like an "open interview" -- which btw is a technique that anyone who wants to study alternative text displays should probably start with before they design the final "study".

    And a final not-so-friendly comment. I'm rather horrified that a site that is in part devoted to "technology" makes my email available to any Tom, Dick or Harry. Requiring non-disclosed email addresses is fine as another layer of spam filtering or helping to control for anonymous flaming. But I shouldn't have to expose myself to automated email harvesters in order to comment on the site. I would, however, be quite happy if you offered the option of making my home blog available as a link for my name.



  • Tony Comstock said...

    I'll go on a bit here. The first thing of Alan's I remember reading was a bit about the difference between reading scrolls and folded pages (codex?) and how that change being able to jump around in the text to find things.

    That post reminded me so much of what Walter Murch has written about the difference between non-linear random access editing and linear editing. The NLE method can be more "efficient" but that same effiencecy makes it hard to have happy accident, or at least makes it harder to have a certain kind of happy accident that is not uncommon in linear editing.

    In fact, my "break though moment" as a filmmaker, (the first on at least, still waiting for the next) can as a direct result of one of those happy accidents. I wonder where I might have ended up if I had bee working on SOTA equipment on that project instead of the old tried and true.

    My experience is that most people don't like hearing what a big piece of the puzzle the technology in hand is in the creative process. That seems to adulterate the fantasy of the artist as a (pure) conduit for pure inspiration.

    Jimmy Cagney's answer to the question "Why did you become an actor was "Because I needed the work." That's not as well known an anecdote known as Van Gogh's severed ear. (For now at least) I'll spare you all my speculation as to why.

  • Alan Jacobs said...

    nadezhda, when I began blogging here I specifically asked that the emails, if required, not be shown, but there haven't been any changes yet. I believe there will be something of a site overhaul forthcoming, so I hope that will happen soon. In the meantime, feel free to use a fake address.

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