Kant on a Kindle?

The technology of the book—sheafs of paper covered in squiggles of ink—has remained virtually unchanged since Gutenberg. This is largely a testament to the effectiveness of books as a means of transmitting and storing information. Paper is cheap, and ink endures.

In recent years, however, the act of reading has undergone a rapid transformation, as devices such as the Kindle and iPad account for a growing share of book sales. (Amazon, for instance, now sells more e-books than hardcovers.) Before long, we will do most of our reading on screens—lovely, luminous screens.

The displays are one of the main selling points of these new literary gadgets. Thanks to dramatic improvements in screen resolution, the words shimmer on the glass; every letter is precisely defined, with fully adjustable fonts. Think of it as a beautifully printed book that’s always available in perfect light. For contrast and clarity, it’s hard for Gutenberg to compete.

And these reading screens are bound to get better. One of the longstanding trends of modern technology is to make it easier and easier to perceive fine-grained content. The number of pixels in televisions has increased fivefold in the last 10 years, VHS gave rise to the Blu-Ray, and computer monitors can display millions of vibrant colors.

I would be the last to complain about such improvements—I shudder to imagine a world without sports on HDTV—but it’s worth considering the ways in which these new reading technologies may change the nature of reading and, ultimately, the content of our books.

Let’s begin by looking at how reading happens in the brain. Stanislas Dehaene, a neuroscientist at the Collège de France in Paris, has helped to demonstrate that the literate brain contains two distinct pathways for making sense of words, each activated in different contexts. One pathway, known as the ventral route, is direct and efficient: We see a group of letters, convert those letters into a word and then directly grasp the word’s meaning. When you’re reading a straightforward sentence in a clear format, you’re almost certainly relying on this neural highway. As a result, the act of reading seems effortless. We don’t have to think about the words on the page.

But the ventral route is not the only way to read. The brain’s second reading pathway, the dorsal stream, is turned on when we have to pay conscious attention to a sentence. Perhaps we’ve encountered an obscure word or a patch of smudged ink. (In his experiments, Mr. Dehaene activates this pathway in a variety of ways, such as rotating the letters or filling the prose with errant punctuation.) Although scientists had previously assumed that the dorsal route ceased to be active once we became literate, Mr. Dehaene’s research demonstrates that even adults are still forced to occasionally decipher a text.

The lesson of his research is that the act of reading observes a gradient of awareness. Familiar sentences rendered on lucid e-ink screens are read quickly and effortlessly. Unusual sentences with complex clauses and odd punctuation tend to require more conscious effort, which leads to more activation in the dorsal pathway. All the extra cognitive work wakes us up; we read more slowly, but we notice more. Psychologists call this the “levels-of-processing” effect, since sentences that require extra levels of analysis are more likely to get remembered.

E-readers have yet to dramatically alter the reading experience; e-ink still feels a lot like old-fashioned ink. But it seems inevitable that the same trends that have transformed our televisions will also affect our reading gadgets. And this is where the problems begin. Do we really want reading to be as effortless as possible? The neuroscience of literacy suggests that, sometimes, the best way to make sense of a difficult text is to read it in a difficult format, to force our brain to slow down and process each word. After all, reading isn’t about ease—it’s about understanding. If we’re going to read Kant on the Kindle, or Proust on the iPad, then we should at least experiment with an ugly font.

Every medium eventually influences the message that it carries. I worry that, before long, we’ll become so used to the mindless clarity of e-ink that the technology will feed back onto the content, making us less willing to endure challenging texts. We’ll forget what it’s like to flex those dorsal muscles, to consciously decipher a thorny stretch of prose. And that would be a shame, because not every sentence should be easy to read.

Jonah Lehrer is the author, most recently, of ‘”How We Decide.”


Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703499604575512270255127444.html