images.jpgTeleRead contributor Matt Hayler has published an email interview with well-known neuroscientist and researcher Merlin Wilfred Donald,(pictured) on Matt’s blog. This is the portion of the interview that deals with digital books:

Q: Many commentators seem remarkably resistant to the digitisation of texts, if not for the ‘natively-digital’ work of blogging, and online journals and magazines, (though detractors are certainly out there, notably Mark Helprin, and Andrew Keen), then certainly for previously print-only works, particularly bound paper books. The totemic examples here are perhaps Roger Darnton, and Sven Birkerts. This resistance seems not to emerge from Ludditism, but instead from a belief that books are the most/one of the most effective agents outside of ourselves to effect positive change in our mental life, where as screens fall drastically short of this mark. Where do you think this resistance stems from? Is there something to be said for the loss of physical interaction with information?

A: Personally, I do not resist digization – but I think the printed book is a near-perfect piece of technology for certain purposes, that will take a long time to displace or replace, especially in fields where intensive study is required. The ebook may be best suited for fiction, or biography. But for anything that requires a lot of reflective thought, a printed book is so portable, handy, easy to notate, and flexible in its format, when compared with current electronic readers, that I would not see the latter as serious competitors yet. That may change as they improve. In particular, electronic readers are not friendly for page flipping, or for parallel processing, where you lay out many books and papers at once, some with pages held open, others annotated, and scan them collectively. What you are doing in that case is moving through several parallel information fields in three-dimensional space, something you cannot do in an ebook.

Electronic reading is too linear for my taste, and leaves no room for my favourite strategy – speed-reading an interesting book backwards, to track its argument; or to feel out the author’s real intentions, sometimes in random order, to sample the flavour of the thoughts therein; or leafing through a manuscript in selected chunks that are determined intuitively, often in an unpredictable order, triggered by specific contents or ideas.

All in all, I like navigating knowledge networks in flexible, intuitive ways that are impeded by the current tendency of electronic media to insist on linear, highly controlled environments.


The TeleRead community values your civil and thoughtful comments. We use a cache, so expect a delay. Problems? E-mail