The above articles (focused on the same study, Mangen) engage in the very visible and current rhetorics of lamenting the loss of reading. These are, of course, not new arguments. I'm also reading Nick Carr's The Shallows now, which is a pleasant expansion of his 2008 "Is Google Making us Stupid?" (which was an argument that sought to incite and failed to do more (for this reader) than sound unfounded alarm bells). I'm thinking about these arguments a lot this summer. I think most of what culture has been worried about is the loss of "deep reading"--initial studies about how readers' eyes track on the screen lead to the sense, as Carr has suggested, that reading online is equivalent to skimming, surface understanding (we can't even read WAR AND PEACE anymore!!! ahhhh! I have many things to say about this flavor of lament, but one question for now is, what is deep reading FOR anyway?)
But in the above articles...I'm seeing much more attention to the materialities of reading processes coming to bear on the conversation. While I think ineluctably these conversations are still tinged with panic (for me, unfounded...see: all of the histories of new literate technologies), there is now much more consideration of how the physical specificities of screens, kindle pages, pens vs. laptops impact our practices and cognitive processes.
The study discussed finds essentially no differences in the experience of reading a short story in paperback vs. a tablet except on the ability to sequence events in the short story. Those on the tablets had a harder time explaining which events came when. What accounts for this? The conclusions point to the idea that the materiality matters: “It’s a confirmation that these ergonomic dimensions, the tactile feedback of holding paper, might actually matter” (Anne Mangen, lead researcher on the study).
It's exciting to think about why it matters, or what account we can make of this difference. What could account for this difference? My instincts point toward our acclimation to the technology of the printed book page; that reading has all along actually been a dimensional, physical, spatial experience (I'm thinking, I guess too, of the ways our memories on a test--how often we remember the location of the "facts" based on where they were on the textbook page. Or how ancient poets, rhetoricians memorized speeches by placing their points in different rooms of their homes). Order is enforced, echoed, perhaps, in the rhythm of the turning page (but not [yet] in the swipe of the finger?) or in the flipping back of pages, or something... Perhaps kindle reading, as yet, does not provide a sense of spatial accumulation and ordering (elsewhere, I've heard that tablet reading doesn't provide a sense of access to what's coming up or what you've already read...you can flip around as much, nor feel the progress you've made).
Interesting how the virtues of new technology exposes features and virtues of the technology that we've been living with for a long time. It's hard to "see" that the book as a technology (of course) and hard to access how its specific material manifestations, how its plain old features, have trained us. What could a tablet do to more closely remediate book features? (or SHOULD it closely do "book things"?) Or how long might it take readers to acclimate to the materiality of tablet reading? What will the tablet contribute?
It's cool, I think, to see a turn toward evaluating material differences--the ways to experience and make texts is constantly changing, and far from tossing one out to replace with something new, these choices are just piling up (take account, right now, of all the ways you have around you to take in and make text). I think this is where we'll learn the most (sidestepping some of the cultural fear noise) about how digital technologies are affecting reading and writing processes in our present moment.