“A Book Is a Machine to Think With”

Me reading Distraction Addiction

There’s much ado these days about new reading technologies. In particular, the ebook, but there are more recent innovations in digital reading, too: Spritz is one, and social e-readers are another. The way digital reading is discussed, you’d think people who like reading plain old paper books are Luddites.

But what if I told you that physical books are technological marvels themselves?

I encountered a provocative discussion of how we use this far-out dead-tree technology in–where else?–a book, dead-tree version, by one of my favorite writers, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang. After reading this, I’ll never look at a book the same way again.

This discussion of books is part of a topic on technologies as extensions of the mind. Now I don’t know about you, but when I hear that, I’m expecting virtual reality and cochlear implants. Not books.

How, you might wonder, do devices make everyday cognitive activities easier?

Let’s look at something you’re doing right now: reading. Reading has the virtue of being both very familiar and very complex and multi-layered. By deconstructing it, we can see more clearly how cognitive functions that we develop with years of practice, formal techniques that we consciously learn and apply, and the physical nature of the printed page and book all work together. Taken apart, reading turns out to be an extraordinary combination of conscious and unconscious activities and internalized and offloaded processes, all integrated so well that they create a completely seamless experience.

First off, I love the inclusion of books under the category of “devices.” Nobody said a device has to be digital.

Also, it sure sounds like Pang is describing some type of computational interface, with all the talk of processes and seamlessness.

But no. It turns out books are way more intricate than they appear. To begin with, a book is actually built on top of much older and more fundamental technologies, just as a web application like the one you’re viewing now is built on top of networking protocols and servers.

First, observe something really basic: You’re reading letters.

You recognize each one, you associate letters with sounds (this is called phonemic awareness), and you know how these sounds build to make words.

But you don’t consciously string letters and sounds together. After years of practice, you’re good at automatically grouping letters into words, because there are specific parts of your brain… that have devoted themselves to phonemic processing…

You’re aware of reading words and lines of text, but what you don’t realize is that your eyes aren’t moving evenly across letters and spaces; rather, they’re focusing on groups of letters for a couple of tenths of a second, performing these saccadic jumps without your awareness. (Your visual system learned to move your eyes like this, and when you were quite young, your brain learned to take these individual frames and convert them into a smooth picture of your visual reality.)

So word recognition is fluid and automatic, but it isn’t an ability you were born with; it’s one you’ve acquired over years, and it’s moved from the conscious to the unconscious part of your brain. In the parlance of the extended-mind thesis, word recognition has been outsourced as an autonomic function.

Makes sense. Sticking with the web metaphor, it’s just like how you don’t have to know the IP address of the computer where this blog post is stored–that technology’s been consolidated and outsourced to a device. It’s “unconscious” to you, the web surfer.

Just wait, though. There are lots of other “features” of this revolutionary hardware called Book.


 Another thing that makes perceiving and recognizing words easier is that there are spaces between them.

Haven’t noticed those since you were a child? You should… During the Middle Ages, word spacing was adopted to help provincial converts with a shaky grasp of Latin read the Bible and to help scholars make their way through recent translations of Arabic scientific and philosophical texts. For novice readers, word spacing made a new language easier to comprehend; for experienced readers, it made reading much faster and largely eliminated the need to read aloud. Reading could now become a silent, contemplative activity, less like speech and more like thought.

Serifs, capitalizations, punctuation:

Now, return your attention to the letters. They may have little curls, and the spacing between the letters vary ever so slightly. The curls are serifs, and they’re used to make letters easier to read… The spacing varies because different letters need different amounts of space around them to look good…

Words tend to be printed in black on white or slightly off-white paper. Notice anything else about the letters you’re reading? Some of them, particularly the ones at the beginnings of sentences or the beginnings of names, are bigger than others. Mixed in with the letters are punctuation marks, like commas and semicolons, which give your inner reading voice cues about how to read a sentence–when to pause, when to provide a little emphasis (or when something is meant as an aside).

White space, table of contents, index:

Now look around the page. Notice the white space separating the words from the edges of the page. These margins make it easier for your eyes to scan lines and keep your place, and they provide space for you to make notes or annotations. Many books will also have running heads, words at the top of the page that communicate some information–the book title, for example, or the name of the current chapter. Each page also has a unique number…

If you leaf through the book, you’ll see other pieces of organization. At the front is a table of contents, which shows you (thanks to the page numbers) where new chapters begin. At the back of the book is an index, which shows you (again, thanks to page numbers) where in the book different topics are discussed.

Each feature has a specific purpose that makes reading easier, just as a computer has a keyboard, mouse, monitor, and hard drive, without which computing would be an arduous task.

These features will all be familiar, and you’re accustomed to seeing them in books… These structural elements are what bibliophiles call paratexts, a term that also describes headings and subheads, picture captions, and footnotes. Most of these have been features of books for hundreds of years; word spacing and punctuation are medieval innovations, and modern typography began as a real art in the Renaissance…

Young readers don’t see many of these paratexts: Pat the Bunny doesn’t have chapters. Paratexts are intended to support reading that’s more complicated, sophisticated, and varied than the sort practiced in the nursery.

Just like computers and networks enable amazing feats of creative and analytical skill, all these features of a book allow us to do stuff like: detect themes in protracted, complex fiction; construct philosophical or scientific arguments for research papers drawn from hundreds of different books; quickly scan obtuse legal opinions to extract its new and controversial aspects.

The amazing part is, while these advanced techniques take years of experience to develop, they’re all built on the elementary features of books and the core reading and language skills we develop while young.

These kinds of reading aren’t just techniques for managing large volumes of content; they direct an academic’s or professional’s attention and help define what it means to be a scholar or lawyer. But all these complex cognitive activities–keeping track of an argument, appreciating an author’s command of language, experiencing surprise, interpreting the meaning of a ruling–rest on automatic, foundational abilities we develop as children…

If letters, words, word spacing and punctuation, fonts and typography, and paratexts are so commonplace, why are they worth remarking on? Because, despite their near invisibility, they help you achieve remarkable feats of recognition, cognitive outsourcing, and understanding. Letters, word spacing, and punctuation help you read and decipher words quickly and fluently. Your eyes are moving in rapid bursts over groups of letters, your brain’s visual processing center is creating a smooth experience out of jagged fragments of visual data, and a nearby section is recognizing words. Chapter headings, page numbers, and footnotes show you at a glance where you are in a book, signal what you should be paying attention to, and tell you what content is central and what is peripheral. But all of this is happening at an unconscious level. Consciously, you’re reflecting on the meaning of sentences, keeping the past few lines in your short-term memory, thinking about how the paragraph is structured, how this section’s argument is ordered, and what it means. Pieces of the argument–particular facts, maybe a turn of phrase–are starting to settle down into long-term memory. You may be underlining or taking notes, creating a record that you can go back and refer to or that may help you better digest the book’s argument.

In short, as you read, you interact with layers of technologies, from letters to margins to chapters, drawing on skills you mobilize unconsciously and automatically. This helps you orient yourself in a sustained, elaborate argument; lets you filter what’s really critical from what’s interesting but peripheral; and supports your efforts to turn reading into meaning and memory.

And of course, books also allow us to underline, write marginalia, dog-ear, Post-it, and even rip pages out. That’s how we make them our own, and how we internalize their contents. These are often things that digital reading technologies cannot handle.

Let’s close the circle on the idea that a book is a powerful, irreplaceable technology.

Most of the time… what we all experience when we read is a seamless blend of complexity and cunning. I.A. Richards was a lot closer to the truth than he realized when we wrote that “a book is a machine to think with.” Reading is a form of entanglement, the best everyday example of an effortless but mind-expanding merger with technologies. A book contains layers of cognitive engagement, content and paratexts meant to exist at the center and periphery of our attention, tools that invite us to engage or offload. Reading does not involve total attention to every element of a book; we focus our attention intensively on certain things, rely on devices to help us remember others, and completely transfer responsibility to other objects for yet other information. All these literary technologies are invisible for the same reason that the lenses of your eyeglasses are invisible: you cease to be aware of them because you see the world through them.

For much more on how to use technology (like books!) to the fullest to enhance your life, I highly suggest you check out The Distraction Addiction.