Back in 2014, I wrote this essay about reading massive novels on a teensy screen.
It originally ran on BookRiot, but vanished in linkrot a few years ago. So now I’m resuscitating here on Medium: When I reread it, everything I discussed still seems pretty relevant!
This is the story about how I read War and Peace on my iPhone.
According to some scholars and pundits, I probably shouldn’t have done this. These days, critics of digital reading worry that serious literature sort of can’t be adequately read on high-tech devices. Screens, they fear, are inherently inferior to print. Phones are twitchy hives of activity, speeding us up and yanking us in all directions. Paper books, in contrast, calm us and slow us down. In her new book Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World, the linguist Naomi Baron surveyed the research and concluded that digital screens are pretty lousy environments for deep, immersive reading. There are plenty of studies backing her up. When scientists test these things, they find that people who read a text onscreen remember less of it than people who read it on paper. The books don’t seem to lodge in our souls as well.
Why? No one entirely knows. Some of it may simply be due to eyestrain ergonomics: Laptops require you to lean in for a long time to read a book, mobile-phone are shiny mirrors, and even a high-rez Kindle Paperwhite — which I own — feels somehow squintier that the stark contrast of dark ink on paper. It may also be, as the scholar Anne Mangen has found in her work, that our minds are slightly befuddled by navigating ebooks. When you can’t as easily flip through a text, you feel more at sea.
And then, of course, there are the distractions. With Instagram and Twitter pecking at you like ravenous ducks, one could scarcely imagine a tool more exquisitely tuned to destroy deep attention than a modern phone. Baron found that 85% of young people reported multitasking while reading on a digital device, while only 26% did so with a paper book. “I don’t absorb as much,” complained one. “Reading [on] paper is active — I’m engaged and thinking, reacting, marking up the page,” said…