Kerry Temple has been at the helm of the estimable Notre Dame Magazine for quite a while now. Two weeks ago he published a column titled “Out of the Office: The Science of Print.” I commend it to your attention.
Temple deftly weaves notes on how he reads print and pixels differently, is preferences, and neuroscience that has demonstrated the different outcomes of reading text on paper versus text on a screen.
I am more likely to skim online content — not fully engaged, cruising over text looking for highlights, bullet points, the pertinent “take-aways,” while also trying to ignore pop-ups, ads and other distractions. Some call this “information foraging,” not reading. I do a lot of foraging in a day.
So here at the magazine, when I read a manuscript sent to us for potential publication, I print it out. I make sure I read the hard copy, not the screen version. That helps me really read the words, pay closer attention, fully engage the story being told, be with it as I read it.
I do this because my job as an editor asks me to care about the depth and quality and nuance and substance of the stories we tell on our pages. I also do this because, as a writer, I know the labor put into crafting prose. The writer deserves my attention to detail; I honor the transaction with my thoughtful focus, by being fully present during the encounter.
I would not mind a bit an editor who brought that sensibility to a story of mine. Regarding some of the science:
“People understand and remember what they read on paper better than what they read on screen,” says Ferris Jabr, writing in Scientific American. “Researchers think the physicality of paper explains this discrepancy.” And according to the presentation, this applies to “digital natives” as well.
But the next step — that reading actively shapes brain development — deserves equal attention. Citing Proust and the Squid: The Story & Science of the Reading Brain by Maryanne Wolf, a neuroscientist and child development expert, the booklet explains: “The ability to derive meaning from abstract letterforms is not built into our neural circuitry; every generation has to learn it anew, and when we do it rearranges the way our brains are built. Reading and writing only happen when the brain grows the interconnected neural pathways for sharing information. And here it gets really interesting: the media we use to carry our messages have a lot to do with how those neural pathways get developed.”
The medium does not just carry the message; it helps shape the brain.
Temple wraps all of this up with a sentence that gladdens me:
Any enterprise hoping to last depends upon constant adaptation to shifting landscapes. But the qualities of reading still supersede the fast-food snacks gleaned from foraging.