To truly grasp the printed word, you gotta hold it

For several years now, I've read the daily news online, by passing the paper edition altogether. When I first made the switch, it felt utterly liberating. No papers hung around waiting to be read or recycled. The newspaper pile was gone, freeing up valuable real estate in my home. So, too, fingers once blackened with ink were now free to roam the keyboard. Point here, click there, and an article of my choosing would materialize onscreen. The efficiency of it all was breathtaking.

When I canceled my subscription to the hard-copy edition of the newspaper, I never looked back - that is, until a recent morning. I opened my e-mail headlines from the daily paper and spotted a half-dozen stories of interest. As I looked at the articles, however, I found that several were fairly long. Suddenly I felt a sense of dread, as if reading had become a form of punishment.

And there's the rub. For anything beyond casual browsing or skimming, I think I may hate the computer.

My uncertainty merely reflects the thoroughness of my self-imposed brainwashing. For efficiency's sake, I had lulled myself into thinking that reading is the same regardless of the medium. A newspaper story is a newspaper story, whether it sits on newsprint or scrolls down a screen.

This might be true, were it not for the hyperclarity of screens these days. But the same vividness that makes computers excel at certain tasks may actually impede the goal of reading.

When we look at books and newspapers in print, we're used to seeing creamy off-whites, dull grays, and print that's more complementary than contrasting. In effect, the clarity of the screen may be altogether too jarring, even after adjusting for brightness. They never told us that better screens don't necessarily make for better reading.

Yet I have other, more basic reservations about reading online. I wonder whether we read as carefully or as thoroughly as we do in print, and whether our attention is divided by the medium itself. Computers are, by definition, multitasking machines; it may be inevitable that, as users, we multitask without even realizing it. Moreover, I suspect we read faster and less patiently online, as if in a rush. For those of us who grew up in a hard-copy world, the computer will never be our native medium for reading. No wonder we might read more hastily.

In retrospect, I question whether I ever truly mastered the change from print to pixel. Sure, I can navigate a Web page with the best of them, and come away with the salient facts. But I'm now convinced that the same information, read in print, tends to stick differently in the brain, as if the words have better adhesion.

Four years into this online habit, I find myself longing for the fuller reading experience of a physical newspaper. True, I print out articles every day, thereby warding off the halting brilliance of the computer screen. Still, when I print out an article, it sprawls onto an 8-1/2-by-11-inch sheet, where it looks suspiciously like a report.

Give me an old-fashioned newspaper any day, with the familiar column-inch of its pages, that narrow, perfectly readable block of text. I don't know whether the eye naturally favors a shorter line, or nostalgia has simply gotten the better of me. I do know that reading online is a great way to gulp information. But for the sheer joy of sipping and savoring words, one wants the real thing.

Joan Silverman is a freelance writer.

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