Thursday, August 19, 2010

The future's in "frankenbooks"?

The future's in "frankenbooks"?

OPED commentary in the Providence Journal, Rhode Island, USA,
August 20, 2010

With two important books making waves nationwide this summer — William Powers’s “Hamlet’s BlackBerry” and Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows” — academics will be talking up the pros and cons of reading on paper versus reading on screens for a long time to come. More books on the subject are coming out soon.

We might even be talking about something called “frankenbooks” before long, because more and more, electronic books are being released with in-gadget videos, music and photo spreads. These e-books are being characterized as “enhanced” and “enriched,” reports Julie Bosman of The New York Times, who noted in a recent article that “e-books of the latest generation are so brand new that publishers can’t agree on what to call them.”

Let’s call them “frankenbooks.” They really want to be real books, on paper, the way books were meant to be, but their makers, like Dr. Frankenstein of Mary Shelley’s famous story, want something novel.

Meet Anne Mangen. She’s a reading specialist in Norway, and in an academic paper published in London in 2008, she listed a few reasons why reading on paper and reading on a screen are different. Dr. Mangen said that:

• Reading on a screen is not as rewarding — or effective — as reading printed words on paper. The process of reading on a screen involves so much physical manipulation of the computer that it interferes with our ability to focus on and appreciate what we’re reading.

• Online text moves up and down the screen and lacks physical dimension, robbing us of a feeling of completeness.

• The visual happenings on a computer screen and our physical interaction with the entire device and its setup can be distracting. All of these things tax human cognition and concentration in a way that a book or paper or magazine does not.

• The experience of reading a book or a newspaper or a magazine is both a story experience and a tactile one.

The jury’s still out on just how different reading on paper is from reading on a screen, but the public discussions in the blogosphere are getting interesting and heated. I am certain that professors at Brown will have a lot to say about this in future years, too, as textbooks go digital as well.

We have entered uncharted waters, “frankenbooks” and all. Brave new world? Maybe. Or maybe a very interesting, technogically brilliant world! As for me, I like books, and I like the Internet; I feel there’s a place for paper and a place for the ethersphere, in balance, with time for unplugging, too.

It is my belief, as a lifelong reader who has reached his seventh decade, that future MRI and PET brain scans of people tested while reading on paper and reading on screens will help us understand these issues better. This pioneering work is being done now in a few research labs around the world, and the results will be interesting, to say the least.

When I asked a veteran book editor in Taiwan whether he was concerned that the digital age might do away completely with printed books someday, he smiled and said, “We’re still using candles for some things, aren’t we?”

Let the MRI and PET brain-scan research at Tufts and UCLA begin.

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