The Future of Reading

I found this article about the use of color in text on Longform last night, and I wanted to share it here because it explores the e-book incunabula era we are currently living through. I’ve tried to keep up with developments, but as I’ve said before and I’ll say again, no one knows what is going to happen. You can never tell which new technology or product will truly innovate and cause a paradigm shift in the way we read. The only thing we know for sure is that change is inevitable:

Today many of us read primarily on screens–and we have for years–yet most platforms have focused on using technology to attempt to recreate text as it appears in books (or in newspapers or magazines), instead of trying to create an optimal reading experience.

-James Hamblin, The Atlantic

A key word here is “optimal.” It’s not about adding bells and whistles to a text just because you can; it’s about truly improving the experience. I am fascinated by this color gradient idea because it’s an example of someone questioning our basic assumptions and challenging the way we’ve always done things. It reminds me of the part in The Giver when Jonah notices something odd about an apple, which turns out to be the first flash of color in his black-and-white world. If something as familiar to us as color has never occurred to Jonah, it leads the reader to question: what other dimensions or qualities are out there that have never occurred to us?

Books have been with us for so long that we forget PRINT IS A TECHNOLOGY. Page numbers, line lengths, the return sweep, and black ink are all efficiencies we developed as we collectively learned to read mechanical text. It wasn’t always like this, and it won’t always be like this. We just kind of got used to it over the past 500 years. Print became the technology of knowledge, and it’s so ubiquitous we don’t even realize it.

I was looking into OpenStax, the open source textbook initiative at Rice University, and that led me to Bookshare, which helps people with print disabilities stay on course in their education (watch the video; it’s cute). But think about that term for a minute: print disabilities. Our entire cultural foundation is so grounded in print that not being able to cope with it is a disability. We basically decided 500 years ago that if your eyes or brain did not take to our tiny rows of black letters on white background, you were going to fall behind. And in a way, that’s ridiculous… but you see the same thing happening now with digital literacy.

It took 50 years for print incunabula to make the adjustment from manuscript culture and settle into the form we use today. I do wonder if the adjustment will happen quicker in the Information Age, or if our brains still need a generation to catch up to major changes. I am really excited about everything we’re going to be able to do with e-readers. As the article says:

The task now is to make digital reading better than reading in print.

This isn’t the a-ha moment for me; I’m not going to go invest all my money in Beeline because I believe so much in color gradient text. I hope it becomes more common and helps a lot of people; it’s just, for me, this isn’t the magical, feel-it-in-my-gut, transformative innovation that cuts to the very core of why I love books. But it shows that there are people out there working on it. And someday, someone is going to develop something that makes me see that, oh yes, the apple is red, and there is so much more we can do with our knowledge.

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