Is Reading Still Fundamental?

The words in "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" haven't changed in 130 years, but the experience of reading it sure has. I don't mean the sociological context; I mean the mechanics of reading the novel itself. Or any novel.

What's changed is our brains. They seem different. That's because we're awash, day in and day out, in emails, tweets, Facebook posts, IMs, text messages, PowerPoint slides and Google results – bits of information we need for a multitude of simultaneous tasks that are interrupted every five minutes.

So after five days and at least 40 hours of this during the work week, it's asking a lot of our scattered minds to immerse themselves in a great American novel on the weekend. We make this challenge even steeper when we try reading it on a computer screen instead of in a traditional book with paper pages.

Researchers are looking deeply into these issues – problems focusing and the potential shortcomings of the digital reading experience.

We at Brodeur are fascinated, too. We already explore on a daily basis how variables like people's sensory experiences make things more or less relevant to them. We also try to stay current on behavioral science, since we exist to help clients change the behavior of their customers, constituents and supporters.

The feel of a good book

Logically, a novel is the same thing whether bound in leather or digitized in a Kindle. You'll be reading the same words. But consider the sensory experience of a traditional paper-based book that is solid in your hands throughout the entire read versus an ephemeral digital image of pixilated text that vanishes when you scroll to the next paragraph.

"What I've read on screen seems slippery," writes Brandon Keim in Wired.

Ferris Jabr elaborates in Scientific American:

In most cases, paper books have more obvious topography than onscreen text. An open paperback presents a reader with two clearly defined domains--the left and right pages--and a total of eight corners with which to orient oneself. A reader can focus on a single page of a paper book without losing sight of the whole text: one can see where the book begins and ends and where one page is in relation to those borders. One can even feel the thickness of the pages read in one hand and pages to be read in the other. All these features not only make text in a paper book easily navigable, they also make it easier to form a coherent mental map of the text.

In contrast, most screens, e-readers, smartphones and tablets interfere with intuitive navigation of a text and inhibit people from mapping the journey in their minds. A reader of digital text might scroll through a seamless stream of words, tap forward one page at a time or use the search function to immediately locate a particular phrase--but it is difficult to see any one passage in the context of the entire text.

As an analogy, imagine if Google Maps allowed people to navigate street by individual street, as well as to teleport to any specific address, but prevented them from zooming out to see a neighborhood, state or country. Although e-readers like the Kindle and tablets like the iPad re-create pagination--sometimes complete with page numbers, headers and illustrations--the screen only displays a single virtual page: it is there and then it is gone. Instead of hiking the trail yourself, the trees, rocks and moss move past you in flashes with no trace of what came before and no way to see what lies ahead.

(Sorry that was so dense. You still with me?)

That article, as well as this one in the Washington Post and Keim's in Wired, cite studies with varying implications for digital's effects on reading. Some suggest problems in the digital experience, others not really.

Your brain on Twitter

Book format aside, what have done to ourselves by disintegrating our days into micromoments? Can we really handle the cognitive burden of shifting gears from consuming small bytes of information during the workday to layers of lengthy narrative at night? Assuming we even still like books?

"We're spending so much time touching, pushing, linking, scroll­ing and jumping through text that when we sit down with a novel, your daily habit of jumping, clicking, linking is just ingrained in you," Andrew Dillon, a University of Texas professor who studies reading, told the Post. "We're in this new era of information behavior, and we're beginning to see the consequences of that."

Maryanne Wolf, author and Tufts University cognitive neuroscientist, put a fine point on it in the same article: "Will we become Twitter brains?"

I think we will. At least I am. Or my brain is.

I'm reading "Middlemarch," the celebrated Victorian novel, and I'm embarrassed to say how long it's taking, even accounting for its 900 pages and my naturally scattered brain. Let's just say months. You can't scan that novel, but that's exactly what my brain wants to do.

While there's a lot more to study about reading in the 21st century, the questions alone have implications for communications. They hint at the limits of the time-honored white paper to sustain a reader's attention as it makes a patient, elegant case. They challenge the wisdom of relying on 1,500-word case studies to sell a prospect. They suggest that any content worth producing needs to be distilled along the way into Tweets, dramatic photos, infographics and short videos to meet its potential.

These questions also suggest that we as marketers need to focus even more than ever on serving the interests of our audience. Obvious? Yes. Practiced? Sometimes. Blatantly self-serving communications, always cheesy, no longer stand a chance.

And sadly, the mere sight of a dense essay, no matter how brilliant the writer and timely the topic, risks scaring "readers" away.

Am I right? You still with me? Anyone?!

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