Guest Post: What Happens When You Try to Read Moby Dick on Your Smartphone?

17468693762_887f7f42d2_hThese days, when most of us think of a “book,” we have in mind something around nine inches by six inches, with mass market paperbacks shaving off an inch or two in each dimension.

But digital reading has redefined presuppositions about size and, more importantly, about what format is best for what’s being read: text messages, news articles, textbooks or fiction.

Conventional wisdom (including my own) typically suggests that serious digital reading calls for ample screen size (at least a tablet or e-reader), while one-off encounters with sports updates or tweets are fine on mobile phones.

But these rules of thumb are crumbling as users increasingly abandon larger mobile devices like Kindles and Nooks in favor of an all-purpose phone. While sales of e-readers and tablets are slowing, the real growth is in smartphones. In 2014, 1.2 billion smartphones were sold worldwide. With many newer generations of smartphones offering bigger screens – along with continued advancements in screen resolution – readers are turning to their mobiles for more and more of their onscreen reading.

Does size matter? For most of us, yes. When the reading platform size shrinks, it’s harder to focus on complex arguments or story lines. No wonder the bestselling e-books tend to be romance and erotica.

9457309719_cbb671a468_hIt’s become commonplace to invoke Herman Melville or Leo Tolstoy when arguing about what kinds of reading work (or don’t work) on which digital media. “No one would read War and Peace on a mobile phone,” you might say – but that’s exactly what journalist Clive Thompson did earlier this year. Expediency was his basic motivation – knowing he was unlikely to lug the print version around with him, he turned to the device he was already carrying: his phone.

Thompson’s success story (he went on to polish off Moby Dick and Crime and Punishment on the phone) can be interpreted two ways: “I told you so” or “the exception proves the rule.” Knowing Thompson’s work, I’m confident he proved a serious reader of these meaty texts. But when my university students try the same feat, they often admit the results are more questionable.

To be fair, the main challenge of reading on mobile phones or smartwatches isn’t size, per se. (Historically, readers have been absorbed in books fitting in the palm of their hand – especially prayer books or poetry.) Rather, for the majority of readers, the issue is mindset. For those lacking self-discipline, there is Freedom software, which blocks internet access on digital devices if you’re trying to get some work done. Either way, reading serious literature on a mobile phone (rather than restaurant reviews or gossip) takes a level of concentration and self-discipline that few have.

Five hundred years ago, when people prayed using a book no larger than a mobile phone, there was no chance of being interrupted by a text message or a tweet. Today, our handy pocket devices are laden with temptations that snatch our attention away from an author’s words.

And distractions aside, there’s still the question of whether or not we can comprehend text on small screens at a level comparable to text in printed books or magazines. Here, there are several intertwined components: size, text length and the digital (as opposed to print) medium.

For size, when reading on a small digital device, the number of characters visible at one clip is abridged, from around 200 (on a mini-tablet or large smartphone) to, at best, a few dozen on a smart watch. Digital reading entails continual scrolling, and there’s little prospect of seeing a two-page spread (an essential format of the codex for nearly 2,000 years). Reading specialist Anne Mangen argues that constant scrolling on digital devices undermines mental absorption.

Now think about how much text people are willing to tackle in the first place. In the age of tl;dr (“too long; didn’t read”), those who read onscreen – even comparatively big screens – show less patience with lengthy prose ( informs time-conscious readers how many words each piece contains and how long it should take to work through them). As screens get smaller, it’s wildly unlikely that even our current attention spans will hold steady.

Finally, consider the medium itself. My research on university students in five countries revealed that 92% believed they could concentrate best when reading in print, not on digital devices.

If you’re reading on a laptop or average-sized tablet or e-reader, at least the physical spread of text offers an in-your-face inducement to read. As screen size shrinks, so, I’ll wager, does the mental holding power of a tiny window that displays only a small amount of text at a time.

Once upon a time, reading was literally a big deal. Children actually learned to read by following the adventures of Dick, Jane and their dog Spot. My own first Dick and Jane primer was physically outsized – picturesquely called an elephant folio – measuring about 20 square inches and set in what seemed like 200 point type.

For me and others of my generation, those mammoth folios were a sign of the importance of reading. With today’s small-screen digital devices, can reading still be a big deal? For most of us mere mortals who yield to distraction and assume size matters, the answer will often be “no.”

reposted under a CC license from The ConversationThe Conversation

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About Naomi Baron (2 Articles)
Professor Baron is interested in electronically-mediated communication, writing and technology, the history of English, language acquistion in children, and higher education. A former Guggenheim Fellow, Fulbright Fellow, and Visiting Scholar at the Stanford Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, she has published eight books. Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World won the English-Speaking Union’s Duke of Edinburgh English Language Book Award for 2008. Her newest book, Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World (2015), will appear in paperback in September 2016 and has been translated into Chinese .
Contact: Website

12 Comments on Guest Post: What Happens When You Try to Read Moby Dick on Your Smartphone?

  1. Hi Naomi,

    Great post on reading on smartphones. I personally enjoy reading an actual, physical book most. Trying to read articles or stories on my smartphone hurts my eyes, so I don’t plan on making it routine.


  2. People need to install “Freedom” software for $6.99/month to avoid distractions when their phone already has airplane mode? Suckers really are born every minute, I guess.

  3. Naomi Baron has been flogging her book and “research” across the internet for years now. Real books are better and electronic readers are just not the same, and thus not good enough. Oh, and it’s so easy to click away from the book and open Facebook, like a grown-ass adult isn’t going to just set down a paper book and look at Facebook when they feel like it. This is “remainder bin” popular science that will be chuckled at a decade from now, no matter how much professorial blather she coats her prejudices in.

    Currently one of my reading devices is a Zinger ZTE, an uber-cheap ($25) small android smartphone. It has a 3.5″ screen and, happily, a pronounced volume rocker that doubles as a paging control. It’s easy to read with because your fingers curl around the phone and this control is always right under your fingers. Paging is effortless and does not distract at all. The phone displays an adequate column of text, which is how text is typically laid out on larger devices anyway – newspapers and magazines use columns because scanning long lines of text fatigue readers and cause them to lose their context. My last book on this device? A biography of Catherine the Great.

    Phones aren’t good enough for reading? Whatever, lady.

  4. I love my Kindle Voyage and prefer to carry it in my purse rather than ever trying to read a novel on my phone. At my age, the ability to make fonts bigger on the screen matters a lot, and that tiny screen is useless as far as actual books are concerned. Plus, it would run down the phone’s battery!

  5. There are two issues I think a lot of this research ignores or overlooks. First, you have to learn to read a paper book. You did that years ago, and now you’re proficient at it; if you’re reading a good book and deeply into it you don’t think about how to turn the page; you’re barely aware that you’re turning pages. Now there are ebooks, and the mechanics of reading- turning pages, going back to a section you read before, etc.- are completely different. You have to learn those all over again, and for a while, when you read, you have to think about those things. How many of these studies that show that people read ebooks more slowly or get less out of them have looked into how long these people have been reading ebooks and how proficient they are with the software/device? If you ask a bunch of people who’ve read very few ebooks to read one and compare the experience with reading a paper book, of course they’re not going to do as well; they’re going to spend some of their mental energy on dealing with the program, or the buttons, or whatever the mechanism is.
    The second issue is what are these people reading in these studies? I think a text that is truly absorbing and interesting is going to be that way regardless of how you access it, but a book that isn’t interesting is going to be as offputting in one format as another. So if you’re giving your study participants a new and unfamiliar ereader or program, and asking them to read something that’s not particularly interesting, you are giving them two problems rather than one, and of course reading in paper (which eliminates one problem: the new device/program) comes out better.

  6. I have read Moby Dick on my smart phone (a ZTE Blade with 3.5 inch screen ) while commuting on the train, using FBReader. If a book is just text, it’s fine, if there’s a lot of images a bigger screen is preferable.

    Although FBReader uses pages, I actually prefer scrolling text. A problem with paper books is that when I want to look back to the previous paragraph, because I haven’t understood something, it always seems to be just back over the page. With scrolling you can adjust the view to show both.

  7. About five years ago I read in a website whose name I don’t remember that people can read on any device. So I tried reading a book on my iPod Touch, and yes I could read without problems. Afterwards I got my first iPhone and later an iPad and continued reading on them. On vacations I read on the beach, and reading on an iPad is possible, but not such a great experience, so I got a Kindle (that had the added advantages of no distractions) and, when on public transportation, in case of robbery, was less expensive to replace. So now it’s five years that I don’t buy p-books.

  8. Smart Debut Author // 20 July, 2016 at 7:19 pm // Reply

    Hey, Naomi — apparently you were distracted by your smartphone while you were in school, and missed a few things. So here’s some recommended reading:

    I suggest you print it out first, on the off chance that reading it on paper helps you comprehend these “complex arguments” better… 😀

  9. Smart Debut Author // 20 July, 2016 at 7:29 pm // Reply

    I got curious enough to check the single-digit handful of reviews for Naomi’s book, which has been out for over a year. Here’s a typical two-star review:

    “The book portrays e-books as new-fangled harbingers of our society’s slow descent into constant distraction. The problem is that Baron doesn’t just focus on her central argument – that e-books are inherently distracting, and that they inherently complement a digital culture that is becoming more fast-paced. She instead prefers to throw everything including the kitchen sink at the very notion of digital reading. So we get unnecessary detours into the smell of books; their value as heirlooms; the ability to purchase them without credit cards, free from prying government or corporate eyes; and the aesthetic appeal of owning a physical object that you can point to on your shelf. All of which are completely peripheral to what Baron should have focused on: pinning down her main claim that digital reading is somehow inherently distracting.”

    Sad what passes for “research” nowadays.

    Oxford Press, y’ought to be ashamed. 😀

  10. Nick Tsiotinos // 21 July, 2016 at 5:24 am // Reply

    I’ve had an interesting experience with my kids. I love the Kindle readers. My daughter and son initially struggled to read books. So I passed on my older Kindles to them. This encouraged them to read. Paradoxically, now at age 10 and 8 they both prefer physical books, and love reading.

  11. Patrick Cassidy // 21 July, 2016 at 10:09 pm // Reply

    Utter nonsense.

    Do you have ANY data to back any of these assertions up?

    I believe my comprehension and retention are BETTER on an eink ereader or even on my phone.

    For the record, I have read the first two volumes of “In Search of Lost Time” on an eink ereader with a 5 inch screen, and I found the experience completely agreeable.

    I love old fashioned BOOK books, but they are heavy and cumbersome and take up a lot of room.

    I now carry about 600 books with me everyday, and they fit in my shirt pocket.

  12. Patrick Cassidy // 21 July, 2016 at 10:26 pm // Reply

    And I also recently read Moby-Dick for the third time on the same device and found the experience no less satisfying than the two occasions I read it in print.

    Perhaps the problem lies with the reader and not the format?

    Oh, and one other title I should mention is on my ereader: Words Onscreen.

    It WAS a bad experience, but only because the epub is poorly formatted and buggy.

    Needless to say, I disagreed with most of its conclusions…

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