Reading Engines Evolving

Reading is not the same practice as it once was. More than a decade ago, James Sosnoski predicted that the cultural shift toward computer-assisted reading which was already emerging would increase exponentially. He said, “Future advances in technology are likely to bring us pocket computers with the look and feel of books and to provide for us not only the text but also loads of complementary materials” (161). Sosnoski’s predictions could not have been more accurate; reading engines like tablets are now more popular than ever. In fact, the popularity of modern reading engines has given rise to what some refer to as a tablet war. We are not only using new technologies; we are also arguing over which models are the best. Articles like this one are released to help people guide their purchases. Videos are made for the same purpose. The following video is an example of a typical tablet comparison.

Why does the widespread emergence of tablets matter? Never before has such a small, portable device been capable of giving readers access to eBooks, newspapers, magazines, document files, and the full and nearly boundless content of the internet at the same time. I also think tablets provide us with a new opportunity to experiment with open hypertexts. Eva-Maria Jakobs describes such hypertexts as “‘open to modification and alteration” (362). Much of what is available on tablets can be interacted with by readers. For example, Sosnoski says he likes to insert comments in files sent to him before returning them to the author or editor (162). A tablet is capable of opening the file, allowing comments to be entered, and then returning the document via email. Editing and collaboration have become almost absurdly easy as well due to online applications like Google Docs.

Tablets also make it easy to perform selective reading practices such as skimming, pecking, and filtering as described by Sosnoski (165-168). Text can be enlarged for quicker skimming, it is simple to search for key words to find pertinent sections to read, and the vast number of resources available makes it easy to filter out what one desires to examine more closely. Users also have access to a wide variety of hypertext genres. Jakobs’ description of a hypertext as “an on- or offline accessible, functionally determined subnet of modules with a certain communicative purpose, organized by an overarching thematic idea” (357) fits well with the functional goals of tablets capable of collecting texts which can be read offline or searching for information from a variety of thematic categories online.

In spite of the value of tablets as new purveyors of hypertexts, I wonder what effects the growing popularity of tablets will have on readers. Clearly, texts are becoming more accessible and interactive. Information can be gathered more quickly and searched for helpful content more easily. What advantages remain for the traditional book? As Sosnoski says, “hypertexts are designed for skimmers” (167). I believe there is still value in reading a whole text without consciously trying to filter, skim, and otherwise alter the reading experience for the sake of convenience and efficiency. On a more personal note, I have yet to find the substitute for the feel of a book in my hands or the smell of an old text which has remained untouched for years. Something about traditional books helps me to concentrate. Working at a library during my high school years gave me the distinct impression that many people, especially those old enough to remember what reading was like before the emergence of eReaders and tablets, have the same nostalgic reaction to and liking for traditional, physical texts.

The comparison of new reading engines and traditional texts leads me to ponder the future of reading. Sosnoski thinks that both electronic reading methods and traditional texts will continue to persist since they accomplish different objectives (172). I cannot feel as certain about this. In a few hundred years, I wonder if electronic texts will come to dominate reading practices in the United States. After all, such texts allow for greater interaction and accessibility while having the potential to be much cheaper than traditional texts which require physical materials to create. Will there come a day, perhaps a thousand years from now, when paper books will be found mainly in museums? What will be lost if electronic reading methods become completely dominant? Will we all become dedicated scanners of text who rarely read the whole of any literary work? Only the future will reveal the permanent impact of current trends.

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