Form, Feeling, and Reading

Last Sunday I read an interesting article in the New York Times “Learning from Legos” which recalled a Frank Lloyd Wright quote about Froebel wood blocks:

“The smooth shapely maple blocks with which to build, the sense of which never afterward leaves the fingers; so form became feeling.”

I feel much the same way about reading. Over the past couple of years as I read more on iPads/screens (or at least as much as I read on paper), I find myself favoring certain topics in one medium vs. another.  As I thought about what I have read in the past few years, I find I prefer to read fiction, news, design on paper and quantitative, science, and non-fiction subjects on iPad.

I cannot remember a time when I did not read a newspaper. Even in these fast emerging digital times, I have stuck to a physical newspaper subscription in addition to its digital form. There is something deeply engaging about paper, typography, and column layout that I scan rapidly, often reading weekend newspapers end to end. Growing up in India, I read the newspaper my grandfather edited, noticing with satisfaction the black ink smudges on my fingertips at the end. There were no digital alternatives at that time. I read my first screens in late teen years at engineering school. I have a feel for words on screen as well – it is different though – from words on paper.  And that difference I feel seems to stretch to subjects I prefer in each medium.

I am certain I enjoy fiction more in pages made of paper and the weight of typefaces,  serifs or the way certain numbers look, especially angular ones, always stays with me. So does the feel of paper itself and the edges and binding and the cover. News is now mostly consumed on a digital screen although the analysis that follows is preferred on paper. Much as intelligent news recommendations engines try, serendipity seems to work better and I scan faster within a newspaper. The legos article I mention at the start was one such discovery – delightful. The sensory sum that is the end of the newspaper on a weekend is something I miss on the iPad. There is no end, always another story to be googled, another site to be browsed. And that dilutes the concentration I exercise with newspapers.

Browsing breaking news, reading some kinds of non-fiction, and quick reading engineering papers is something I find natural to do on screens. Of course there are experiences unique to this medium – like the live newsroom that is Twitter, email, all of the web, Kindle.

I wonder if I cannot and perhaps will never develop a feeling for reading everything on a screen. Reading printed words, the weight of paper, edges of letters, relative angles of numbers, left-justified togetherness of text,… all combine in a form that eases in to a feeling. On a screen, the smudges are on the screen, not on my fingertips.

  • Lisa Abeyta

    I don’t think digital will ever evoke the same experience as reading fiction on paper, because it lacks the sensory part of our memory – the way the paper sounds as the pages are turned, the rough feel of the page, the smell of the book … those all blend together with the emotions we feel as we read a passage.
    But the upside is the ease of availability that comes with digital. The depth, breadth and richness of what is at one’s fingertips now is so different. I remember as a kid sitting in front of my parents’ bookshelf trying to decide which section of the encyclopedia to take back to my room to read. My son sits on his bed at watches a free online lecture from MIT or teaches himself to speak Klingon or reads papers published about antigravity and begins to ask himself questions at fourteen years old about how he might someday use what he’s learned to help cure cancer. I certainly didn’t have access to a world big enough at that age to even think those things might be possible.

  • rohit_mod

    All very good points – digital is unique – perhaps even ‘native’ to generation next.