When it first became common for college students to write on computers, researchers noticed some changes in the quality of their writing. (I think I read about this first in Michael Heim’s 1989 book Electric Language, though I could be misremembering.) On the sentence level, they tended to improve, largely because it is so easy on screen to make changes to improve word choice, sentence structure, and basic grammar and syntax. By contrast, before electronic word-processing the making of such changes was so laborious — involving the delicate application of White-Out at best, retyping of whole pages at worst — that most of us just didn’t bother. We had significant incentive not even to notice such shortcomings.

But word-processed papers, at least in those early days, tended to be more poorly organized than their typed or handwritten predecessors. The use of multiple sheets of paper, coupled with most writers’ need to produce drafts that had to be retyped at least once, allowed for and even encouraged visualizing of the paper as a whole. You could lay out pages before you and just see how the words on one page related to the words on others. You could non-metaphorically cut and paste, and then rearrange paragraphs or whole sections. But when the writer’s view was cut down to a few lines on the screen, and the rest of the paper was invisible without scrolling — which of course didn’t make more of the paper visible, just some different part of it — it became harder to discern the overall shape of the paper, and so while papers got better in stylistic and mechanical ways they got organizationally worse.

I think something closely analogous happens when reading on an e-reader as opposed to reading a codex. I keep trying to settle on reading Infinite Jest on my Kindle, because (as I have noted) I like the smaller size and the physical comfort it allows, plus the ability to annotate and then retrieve those annotations later. But I have been continually aware — in this book far more than any others I have read — of the limited spatial awareness the e-reader offers.

Some of this is a function of the many endnotes, as you have to go back and forth between text and notes. (Incidentally, I learned recently that Wallace actually insisted on endnotes rather than footnotes — I would have suspected that he wanted footnotes but was dissuaded by the additional complexity of formatting, which would have made producing the book more costly.) But Wallace is a writer of riffs, and I have often been frustrated by my inability when using the Kindle to get a sense of just how long the riffs are. It helps to know whether this is going to be a relatively brief one or whether it will go on for pages: having that knowledge enables the reader to adjust the quality of his or her attention accordingly. Again and again while Kindling my way through IJ I have been forced into awareness of how much my reading practices rely on this spatial awareness: not just knowing how far I am into a book (since the Kindle always shows you where you are in percentage form), but knowing when the next chapter or section break is coming. It turns out that that kind of knowledge has always been very helpful to me, especially when I am reading a difficult or otherwise challenging book — but I never knew how helpful until now.

I wonder, therefore, how well I will adjust to this new model of reading, and whether, even if I become a better reader in some ways, I will become a worse one in others.


  1. I agree this is a real weakness in ebooks. In kindle, not sure about others, the publishers can format the books with chapter breaks and those breaks show up as marks on the bottom progress indicator. But almost no one actually formats the books that way.

    I am also very frustrated with footnotes in kindle. I have yet to read a books on kindle with footnotes that seem properly formated. Changing them to endnotes and putting in a link to the note seems to be best. But that requires you actually go to the note, and then go back to your location (instead of just glancing down to the bottom of the page.) I know that the Nook doesn't do this, but using that small screen on the bottom as a footnote area would be a great feature.

  2. The iBooks reader on the iPad does note how many pages are remaining in a chapter. I've really enjoyed that feature, and I hope it spreads to other ereaders.

  3. I of course immediately thought of you when I came across this review of a short study analyzing the lessons of readability in typography (not just fonts but everything to do with layout, what in "hot type" used to be called leading, etc)

    Le détail en typographie

    The review closes with the question: "La composition numérique, l’écran et le pixel… comment prendront-ils en compte les impératifs de lisibilité que l’imprimerie a mis cinq siècles à stabiliser ?" or, digital composition, screens and pixels.. how are they going to take into account the imperatives of readability that printing has taken 5 centuries to establish?

  4. Your comments about the effect of the word processor on academic writing interest me quite a bit. I know that the quality of my own writing took a big leap forward with adoption of the computer, not least because I'm inclined to write a lot more. But in contrast with today's students, I had a history of writing out the first draft long hand and typing the final version from what typically became the sole rough draft.

    Because I have no intention of adopting any sort of e-reader, I'm a disinterested onlooker with respect to the Kindle and other such products. The aha moment of discovery that the medium possesses its own unique imperatives can't be much of a surprise even if the type of imperative manages to surprise.

  5. scritic: I have no idea — though some of the endnotes are several pages long, which means that as footnotes they would have created typographical-design nightmares. But I would have thought that DFW would enjoy that kind of nightmare.

    dunnettreader: thanks much for this. when I read it the first thing that came to mind is the ten years that Don Knuth spent writing TeX, most of it in the attempt to create a typesetting program that would at least approximate the precision and delicacy of traditional techniques of typesetting, and all in the cause of readability. The difficulty of this task is suggested by the amount of time one of the greatest of all programmers spent on it.

  6. I've often wondered how this line comes across on an e-book reader:

    The anxiety, which in this state of their attachment must be the portion of Henry and Catherine, and of all who loved either, as to its final event, can hardly extend, I fear, to the bosom of my readers, who will see in the tell-tale compression of the pages before them, that we are all hastening together to perfect felicity.

  7. As Infinite Jest is told non-chronologically, I think end notes adds to the sensation of "jumping around" for the reader. You never quite know where you are. And a word of advice for Mr. Jacobs while reading this book, it's less about the destination and more about the ride. Sort of like life. Enjoy it.

  8. This is very interesting. Picking up on Brutus's observation, my own experience, as one of the last waves of pre-computer college students (circa 1980), was that most people didn't compose papers on their typewriters but wrote the first draft in longhand and edited the longhand version, using the typewriter as a tool essentially for final publication. This practice reflected, I think, the recognition that it was so hard to edit typewritten text. So I'm not sure it's altogether true to say that the typewriter encouraged students NOT to edit their sentences; in some cases I'm sure that was true, but in many others the effect was simply to encourage the use of a pen or pencil as the tool for composition.

    That adds another wrinkle to the transition from typewriter to computer. Because it is so easy to edit with word-processing software, the computer replaced not only the typewriter but it also longhand composition. I'm not sure what the effects have been, but there must have been some consequences for writing style and quality as well as the organization of papers.

Comments are closed.