This month, my book group is reading George Eliot’s Romola. As out-of-copyright books often come in tiny print, I didn’t want to order a paperback and, by the time I got round to consulting the local library catalogue, it was too late to order it from a distant branch. So I did a very rare thing for me – actually Mr A kindly did it on my behalf – and downloaded the free digital version to read on his tablet.
Oh, but it was tedious! A lengthy prologue, followed by some turgid scene setting until, when we finally meet the cad who wants to wed the unworldly Romola, but isn’t above flirting with a gauche milkmaid on the side, there’s page after page of information-dumpy dialogue – I felt compelled to skim over much of it or I’d have thrown Mr A’s device across the room. When it told me I had almost ten more hours reading to go, I doubted I’d reach the end. The story, with cartoonish heroes and villains, might have been entertaining with a thorough edit but, as it was, it was like opera with music that hurts your ears.
So what was the problem? Could it be that Romola is genuinely one of this author’s lesser works? Could it be that, despite having enjoyed Middlemarch (although it was a struggle when first introduced to it at school), Silas Marner and The Mill on the Floss many years ago, my focus on contemporary fiction means the meandering pace of the classic has lost its appeal? Or could it be the result of reading onscreen?
Many people prefer e-readers, especially for the convenience of storage, both at home and on the move. I’m glad they do as, published by a cash-strapped small press, we’re reliant on people reading digitally for many of the reviews. I don’t believe those people who generously gave so much of their time to my words didn’t immerse themselves in the story. Yet an article by Ella Rhodes in The Psychologist cites research suggesting that we do read differently online:
Psychologists Maryanne Wolf and Mirit Barzillai have written that an immersion in reading that is largely online ‘tends to reward certain cognitive skills, such as multitasking, and habituate the learner to immediate information gathering and quick attention shifts, rather than to deep reflection and original thought. The immediacy and volume of available information may well delude new learners into thinking they have what they need to know.’ When information seems so complete, they write, what motivation is there to go beneath and beyond it? ‘From a cognitive neuroscience perspective, the digital culture’s reinforcement of rapid attentional shifts and multiple sources of distraction can short-circuit the development of the slower, more cognitively demanding comprehension processes that go into the formation of deep reading and deep thinking.’
… psychological studies led by Rakefet Ackerman at least suggest that readers approach the printed word with more of a learning mindset than they might on a screen version.
Ella Rhodes concludes that
Perhaps the destination is the same, and the bottom line is your preference for how you get there. Screen and print reading are perhaps best viewed as complementary, rather than competing, entities – clearly there are benefits to both.
So what do you think? Do you read differently on the page from how you read on screen? I’m looking forward to seeing how the other members of my book group read Romola. Meanwhile, click on the image to check out the reviews of the eight novels and one short story collection I’ve showcased this month.