Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Thursday, March 3, 2011

reading cues in three dimensions

I tend to be annoyed by evolutionary just-so stories (“Let’s see, how can whatever I’m doing at the moment be explained by my hunter-gatherer ancestors?”) but this one I like, perhaps because it addresses an ongoing problem for me:

Something's been bothering me ever since I started reading books, especially non-fiction, on my Kindle:

I can't remember where anything is. Physical books are full of spatial reference points; an especially beloved book is a physical topography in which we develop a vague sense of which chapters contain relevant information; even where, on a page, a particularly striking sentence or diagram lies.

Ebooks have none of these referents. They're searchable (or at least, some are) which mitigates this issue somewhat. But I'm unlikely to remember that a fact was at "41% through a book" for one simple reason: my hands never got a chance to find out what 41% through a particular ebook feels like.

This isn't to say that physical books are perfect — perhaps if we read off of giant scrolls laid out across a gymnasium floor, I'd have an even better memory of where I saw a fact: "upper left quadrant, approximately the fourth row..." or something like that. And perhaps some day a virtual interface for reading will give me those kinds of spatial referents.

But in the meantime, millions of years of evolution are going to waste. It's no secret that mnemonists — the mental athletes of the world of competitive memorization — use tricks like placing facts and sequential information on the walls of mansions they imagine walking through. And why? Because our brains are exquisitely well-tuned to remember where things are. Exactly what you'd expect from a species with a migratory, hunter-gatherer past; a species that re-applied those abilities to the navigation of cities long after it settled into an agricultural pattern.

Whether the evolutionary explanation for knowing how to find things in books is a good one or not, the relative lack of spatial cues in e-reading is a genuine lack. My internet friend Tim Carmody has been talking on Twitter lately about three-dimensionality, and here’s a great instance of how and why three-dimensionality works for us.

3 comments:

  • YES. That's been my biggest beef with ebooks all along--I don't know where I am, or where I left that paragraph I so desperately need.

  • I think that point gets a little overstated sometimes - it's actually quite hard to find a block of text in a book, even if you happen to know that it's placed towards the bottom of an odd page, whereas a handful of text searches will more often yield the desired result. At least that's my feeling. (And in fact the memory palaces of mnemonists are not organised like books at all.)

    Personally I'm more concerned about the loss of spatial architectures of books, such as shelves in university libraries, where disciplinary history deposits in ways that are immensely valuable and often completely overlooked by the library managers themselves.

  • it's actually quite hard to find a block of text in a book, even if you happen to know that it's placed towards the bottom of an odd page, whereas a handful of text searches will more often yield the desired result. At least that's my feeling. (And in fact the memory palaces of mnemonists are not organised like books at all.)

    This is a good point, and I do sometimes wonder whether I'm not just habituated to strategies of memory and organization that are less efficient than plain old string searching. But over the years I have developed a very good memory for where passages are located in books both vertically and horizontally, as it were: how far into the book, and where on the page. And I have multiple ways of marking up texts that connect those passages. At the moment I don't have anything as sophisticated for e-books, though I may perhaps develop a system. (I talk about all this in my forthcoming book on reading.)

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