Drawing upon Heyer’s (1986) three “modes” of reading, Vandendorpe explains that reading generally falls into three categories:
- Grazing, which is “continuous reading,” is the slow movement start-to-finish through a text, like common novel-reading practices
- Browsing is skimming through large bodies of text looking for anything of particular interest, such as the reading of newspapers and magazines
- Hunting is searching for specific pieces of information, such as in a reference volume
Vandendorpe suggests that access and searchability of electronic documents make digital texts a preferred method of reading for the second two, but argues that hard-copy documents are still preferred and better suited for the first. He proposes that certain elements of electronic reading, “notably the rigidity of the screen and the technological barriers posed by the mouse and keyboard” for navigating the text, somehow “prevent readers from immersing themselves in a reading experience comparable to that offered by the book.” Though I largely agree for myself (I prefer reading fiction and journal articles in hard copy), I am skeptical of Vandendorpe’s argument, particularly in a position 7+ years after his writing. I would imagine that the codex is still preferred for novels read for entertainment purposes, particularly New York Times Bestseller Listers like Franzen or Picoult, but I know very few people outside rather niche markets (mostly bibliophiles or academics) who are more likely to purchase hard-copy versions of poetry, drama, fiction, or essay if the electronic version is available, even when their intent is to “Graze” from beginning to end. Is this because of faster access and price, or because the people actually prefer electronic publications to codices? I am inclined to say the former, but as commonality and familiarity with this kind of reading increases, I find it likely that it will soon shift to the latter; and I am far less convinced than Vandendorpe that electronic media are inherently handicapped in their ability to foster this kind of engagement as comfortability and familiarity with them increases.
I do, of course, agree with Vandendorpe that most digital texts encourage Browsing over Grazing, but certainly part of that is the kinds of texts which are most commonly accessed electronically. Fewer words from novels are certainly read online than words from news sources, social media, reference materials, etc.; but I would argue that this has much more to do with what people generally read most often regardless of medium. Few people take a five-minute window to get immersed in a few pages from a novel – the payoff relative to the time is rather limited – but a five-minute investigation into “What’s going on in local politics?” or “Who was Qetzalcoatl again?” rewards with a completed action; similarly, a person with five minutes to spare is more likely to turn their TV to a news program or The Weather Channel rather than watch five minutes of a film. Most reading for most people is done in snippets of time rather than vast swathes during a given work day.
More importantly, however, I would extend a bit beyond Vandendorpe and suggest that what electronic reading practices are doing to Grazing is making the physical movements of the reader more accurately mirror the intertextual processes going on in their brains.
“For the average reader, a book was seen not just as a collection of pages bound together, but as an organic whole worth being read from cover to cover. With the web, pages accessed by the user are generally just fragments whose meaning depends on the context within which they are grasped. Hypertext links give an incredible lightness to the reader, who can easily jump from one idea to another one, shifting contexts as easily as in a conversation. This is not always a blessing, of course, since it distracts the reader from following a single thread of thought, as is normally required in reading a printed book.”
This “organic whole,” I would argue, is an optical illusion of sorts. Sure, it is a collection of statements selected by an author(s) and/or editor(s) in order to disseminate some over-arching argument or narrative; but when thought of as a text rather than the product of its creators, the text itself builds its meaning through its relationship with other texts for the reader (including the author-as-reader). It has some sense of “whole” perhaps, but more as a node within an infinitely-complex web of correlated meaning with a nigh-infinite number of other nodes – and this was true before a single byte was ever transmitted.
With this understood, all the electronic versions are changing in this intertextual functionality of “the text” is the ease for the reader to leave one node, open another, and return to the first (or continue the node-jumping as far as desired). The reader is merely more enabled in her ability to rely on a broader, social semiotic field outside her own head.
The fear, as Vandendorpe notes, is primarily one of novelists and publishers, whose concern must logically be that people, when enabled to read their work in such a sporadic progression, will not read it as its authors desire. Specifically for novelists, the concern is that people will not read the work from start to finish – that they will read a snippet and go off on a tangent, never to return. Given, it is certainly problematic if someone tries to argue about Moby Dick and has only read the Right Whale’s Head chapter before going off onto a tangent thread on Britannica about cetology; but there’s nothing about a digital version of the novel which prevents someone from reading the whole thing if they so desire, so the concern is over people not desiring to read the novel in the same way people did in previous centuries. And bemoaning, resisting, or fighting against the way people want to engage in communication systems is ultimately futile: people will read and write, listen and speak however they prefer to do so. Such a change is as organic (irony intended) to the changing technology of the present era as the change to novel and long fiction in the 18th-19th centuries was for an era of increased literacy and increased economic means for book-production and book-purchasing.
Even if this does happen – if people’s most common method of reading on screen affects their reading of all texts through a screen – the function of this will most likely be a morselization (to borrow McCarty’s favourite term) of text, such that long-form texts like novels and book-length argumentative pieces will fall out of favour as poetry, short fiction, and the like will rise to prominence; and as such a movement theoretically takes place (as it has so many times in literary history), readers will come to understand information as interconnected and see what I would argue to be a more appropriate gestalt-ish view of it. This, again, with a rather large if, which if it were to happen, would hardly be something to be feared, but perhaps even embraced. A fracturing or morselization of texts “whose meaning depends on the context within which they are grasped,” a view which promotes the relationship between texts over seeing each text as a closed unit… ‘tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.
Vandendorpe, Christian. “Reading on Screen: The New Media Sphere.” A Companion to Digital Literary Studies. Eds. Susan Schreibman and Ray Siemens. Oxford: Blackwell, 2008. Web. 1/27/2016.