word craft


A Computer Screen is Not a Book

On my doorstep, the oth­er day land­ed (with an actu­al thud) an ARC (Advanced Read­ers Copy) of my new book, Loy­al­ty.  When I receive such vol­umes, it is always very spe­cial because the man­u­script that I have been work­ing on for so long—spinning a cocoon, so to speak—has turned out a butterfly—a book. 

It looks dif­fer­ent, it feels dif­fer­ent, and most fas­ci­nat­ing to me, it reads dif­fer­ent­ly. I’m not alto­geth­er sure why this is so. Per­haps it is no more than the deeply embed­ded psy­chol­o­gy I have devel­oped from a life­time of read­ing actu­al books. These days—and for years now—I com­pose on a com­put­er, but a com­put­er screen is not a book. I find it hard to read a full-length book straight through on a com­put­er.  At a cer­tain point, I must always print pages and work with words on paper. 

e-book reading

As for read­ing on an e‑reader, I always feel like I am walk­ing on a slimy sur­face. My eyes seem to slide around the back-lit page. 

(I think it is against the laws of God and man for a page to shine up at me. My read­ing light should shine down onto the page.) 

With an e‑book I find myself gloss­ing over words, para­graphs, whole pages. God help me if I tap the rud­dy thing the wrong way. I’m nev­er quite sure where I am. Maybe because it inevitably puts me to sleep. 

Is this just me? My age? My habits of read­ing? Do mil­len­ni­als have this prob­lem? Am I a Lud­dite? [OED: “One who oppos­es the intro­duc­tion of new tech­nol­o­gy, esp. into a place of work.”] 

Because when I read a real book I always know where I am. Moreover—explain this to me—the work achieves a whole­ness, an inher­ent log­ic (or lack of) that gives a bet­ter sense of the qual­i­ties of the writ­ing, or, for that mat­ter, its weaknesses. 

Sure­ly some edu­ca­tion doc­tor­al can­di­date has stud­ied how read­ers react dif­fer­ent­ly (if they do) to print­ed text and pix­el text. Do we absorb more? Remem­ber more? Learn more in one for­mat or the oth­er? If so, some­one please tell me. To echo Patrick Hen­ry, I know not what course oth­ers may take, but as for me, give me print over pix­els any day. 

So, hav­ing received the ARC of Loy­al­ty, I was able to spend a whole day read­ing through my 335-page work—curiously enough—the first time I was able to do so. I start­ed at about nine AM and fin­ished it around nine PM. While it may seem odd to say so, I was able to enjoy the text and was much relieved that it held togeth­er with the kind of sus­pense I enjoy writ­ing. “Bet­ter than I had thought it was,” I told my wife when I put it down. “It works just fine.” I felt great relief. 

I had writ­ten a book. 

5 thoughts on “A Computer Screen is Not a Book”

  1. I love your posts. Have read them for years. This is truth in my world.
    Thank you, Avi
    Gillian Foster

  2. Yes. Hard to read real­ly good work on a device. I have in a pinch read on my actu­al phone via Kin­dle read­er. Not ide­al, but I will do that if I must. i don’t like the Kin­dle I bought at all. Too dim a screen. I love a good book.…everything about a book, good or not mat­ters to me. I want to snug­gle up to it and let it wrap its arms around me. So this does speak to me. Janet F

  3. I can think of few tech­nolo­gies more per­fect than the bound book. Those dig­i­tal abom­i­na­tions do not and can­not ever “enhance” or “improve” upon the expe­ri­ence of read­ing words on paper.

  4. There appears to be quite a body of sci­en­tif­ic lit­er­a­ture on the top­ic. The most famous paper, Man­gen 2013 (“Read­ing lin­ear texts on paper ver­sus com­put­er screen: Effects on read­ing com­pre­hen­sion”; https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijer.2012.12.002), agrees with your observations.

  5. I used to chuck my strong pref­er­ence for paper books to age and con­di­tion­ing. But my kids (gen­er­a­tion Z) much pre­fer paper books.
    Screens are use­ful to skim the news. Good fic­tion is best served with the light shin­ing on it, not from behind it.


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