Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Lehrer on "the future of reading"

Here’s a terrific post from Jonah Lehrer, with this sparkful idea:

The act of reading observes a gradient of awareness. Familiar sentences printed in Helvetica and rendered on lucid e-ink screens are read quickly and effortlessly. Meanwhile, unusual sentences with complex clauses and smudged ink tend to require more conscious effort, which leads to more activation in the dorsal pathway. All the extra work – the slight cognitive frisson of having to decipher the words – wakes us up.

So here’s my wish for e-readers. I’d love them to include a feature that allows us to undo their ease, to make the act of reading just a little bit more difficult. Perhaps we need to alter the fonts, or reduce the contrast, or invert the monochrome color scheme. Our eyes will need to struggle, and we’ll certainly read slower, but that’s the point: Only then will we process the text a little less unconsciously, with less reliance on the ventral pathway. We won’t just scan the words – we will contemplate their meaning.

See also this post by Tim Carmody. The technologies associated with reading — and punctuation and printing styles are technologies — have always been in flux, but now they’re fluxing faster than they used to. But what if developing technologies allow us to situate our reading environment at any of the previous points in the history of reading? What if the future of reading can also be the past of reading? Now that would be cool.


  • The resolution of text the printed page is still vastly greater than that of any electronic display I'm aware off, something Lehrer must be aware of, so I'm wondering if I'm understanding his post.

    I do know that reading is already enough of a struggle for me, but it's precisely because I am too good at skimming, and substitute skimming for reading if I don't pay attention.

    My ideal would be an e-reader that did text to speak in the timber and inflection of Mr. Franklin. He was my sixth grade teacher, and would read to us whenever we had to stay in from recess because of rain. Growing up in Southern California, this was a rare, but very fondly remembered treat!

  • Kindle 3G, Mr. Franklin edition, on sale now!

  • Helvetica is harder to read, serif fonts help the "eye" (including the unconscious brain centers involved). I don't know whether Mr. Lehrer is mistaken or his e-reader really does use a bad choice of fonts, but either way it throws doubt on his idea that paper makes us work harder.

    Higher resolution certainly helps. I suspect the grain of the paper and unevenness and smudges of the ink also help the eye, making the physical reading less effortful, fatiguing and conscious.

  • FutureNerd, so far all the evidence suggests that people read paper codexes faster than they read on e-readers. It'll be interesting to see if that changes as electronic typography improves.

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