Worldwide, more is being read today than ever before, and increasingly on screens. An international research network is studying how media change effects reading. An interview with the book scholar Adriaan van der Weel.
Mr van der Weel, in the initiative “E-Read” more than 150 scientists from over thirty countries are studying reading in the age of digital transformation. You are one of the coordinators of the network. What is your joint work about?
Adriaan van der Weel | Photo: © private
We’re not concerned with evaluating digital developments as good or bad; we’re investigating whether people are sufficiently aware of their possible effects. There are, for example, a number of conscious goals in reading. These include to inform yourself or to reflect on feelings and cares. With the help of literature, some readers even succeed in making a small escape from everyday life. Then, too, reading has other effects that we don’t deliberately choose: withdrawal from social surroundings, stimulation of the imagination, development of empathy and discipline, the ability to concentrate and to think abstractly. We’re looking into the extent reading on screens also has these effects.
What advantages does a printed book have?
Text on paper is taken more seriously by readers than text on a screen, including by young readers. Text on paper affords fewer opportunities for distraction, especially in comparison with digital devices with internet access, which have access to games, films, e-mails, social networks and messengers like WhatsApp. In this way, printed material favours the concentration necessary particularly for reading longer texts – for example, entire books. The feel of printed text is better suited to our perception. When a text is fixed to its carrier medium, it can be better remembered: reading resembles orientation on a map; we anchor certain passages of text to their physical location. When we scroll or read different texts on the same device, this anchoring is destroyed.
The internet offers unlimited access to literature
But reading on digital devices also has its advantages.
To begin with, you can do a search through the text; adjust the font size; the individual text is no longer so important, you can take many books with you simultaneously on one device. And the internet offers unlimited access to further texts. Moreover, digital devices can undoubtedly motivate reluctant readers to read, particularly young ones.
What must a digital reading device be able to offer so that using it resembles reading a printed book as much as possible?
With good reason, people continue to buy and read printed books, while music and film have become almost completely a digital affair. In many countries, the sale of books for digital reading is less than ten per cent; after a few years of rapid growth, it has now stabilized.
Can you train yourself to read on digital devices so as to compensate for the disadvantages?
That’s possible, of course. In phases of concentration, the user has the option, for example, of switching off the distracting functions. But it seems to me almost perverse to apply such technical solutions to devices whose basic purpose, namely to access all digital media and possibilities, is diametrically counter to this. Especially since there is a proven and successful technological alternative: the paper book. One technical solution could be an unconnected reading device like the Kindle or the Tolino, but apparently customers aren’t, or are no longer, so enthusiastic about this option.
It’s about more than readability
Which research projects should be given priority?
One important issue seems to me to be that the digital distribution of text information harbours a large number of pitfalls. They have less to do with the readability of a carrier medium than with far-reaching “infrastructural” issues. For example, our handling of digital texts has the surprising and even paradoxical effect of diminishing rather than enlarging our range of interests. In science, for instance, as an article in Nature
has shown, the number of citations and references decreases rather than, as you would expect, increases. If we focus too narrowly on the debate about reading on screens or reading printed matter, we could overlook larger issue like this.