Here’s a piece I wrote recently for the Guardian, looking at a favourite topic: negotiating the different experiences of print and digital reading and writing, and trying to move beyond the notion that one must be “better” for everything.
My son is 18 months old, and I’ve been reading books with him since he was born. I say “reading”, but I really mean “looking at” – not to mention grasping, dropping, throwing, cuddling, chewing, and everything else a tiny human being likes to do. Over the last six months, though, he has begun not simply to look but also to recognise a few letters and numbers. He calls a capital Y a “yak” after a picture on the door of his room; a capital H is “hedgehog”; a capital K, “kangaroo”; and so on.
Reading, unlike speaking, is a young activity in evolutionary terms. Humans have been speaking in some form for hundreds of thousands of years; we are born with the ability to acquire speech etched into our neurones. The earliest writing, however, emerged only 6,000 years ago, and every act of reading remains a version of what my son is learning: identifying the special species of physical objects known as letters and words, using much the same neural circuits as we use to identify trees, cars, animals and telephone boxes.
It’s not only words and letters that we process as objects. Texts themselves, so far as our brains are concerned, are physical landscapes. So it shouldn’t be surprising that we respond differently to words printed on a page compared to words appearing on a screen; or that the key to understanding these differences lies in the geography of words in the world. Continue reading