Close Reading

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Jonah Lehrer has an article in Wired on the ways by which e-text might affect our reading processes.

Lehrer begins by briefly summarizing the “neural anatomy” of how we read: we have a “ventral route,” which, for a literate person is instinctual, quasi-unconscious reading and a “dorsal stream” which we use whenever we have to pay conscious attention to a particular sentence or passage (more commonly known in academia as “close reading”).  Lehrer then claims that hard-copy texts force us to read consciously (or activate our “dorsal stream”) in ways that streamlined e-texts do not.

Lehrer argues:

Familiar sentences printed in Helvetica and rendered on lucid e-ink screens are read quickly and effortlessly. Meanwhile, unusual sentences with complex clauses and smudged ink tend to require more conscious effort, which leads to more activation in the dorsal pathway.

Therefore, Lehrer concludes that e-texts are serpentine and menacing because they threaten to anesthetize our “dorsal stream” and, consequentially, eliminate our ability to read contemplatively.  And yet there seems to be a very clear distinction here between a text that causes one to engage his/her “dorsal stream” because of semantic difficulty (re: Faulkner) and a text that causes one to do so because of “smudged ink” (re: your Grandpa’s copy of Sherlock Holmes).  I would argue that the semantics of a text are far more likely to encourage thoughtful, dorsal thinking than a blurry letter and that e-texts do not, in any way, threaten that aspect of a text.  As long as we are engaging with dense and thoughtful texts for extended periods of time (as opposed to twittering about the Internet), I think we will activate our dorsal muscles regardless of the medium by which we read.


Daniel Gumbiner is a student at UC Berkeley. He has lived in Chile and Argentina. He blogs with his brother, David, at smartwool.tumblr.com More from this author →