I was preparing to review an essay today, and I was wondering to myself: “Should I read it on the computer or go ahead and print it out? I think I’ll print it out.” Then I thought: “Why print it out and waste paper? What explains my preference for a hard copy of the essay?”
And the answer suddenly came to me: while I by no means have a photographic memory, I do process and remember writing on a page in a way that is spatially related to the layout of the paper itself. For instance, if I underline a quote in a book that sticks out to me—for either positive or negative reasons—I can remember long after where on the page that quote is. So if I’m thumbing through a 300 page book looking for “that one cool quote I liked,” I’ll specifically look, for instance, on the bottom quarter of the left hand page.
My mind remembers the text through a grid I project onto it. I think my mind divides the book into left page and right page, and each page into quarters. It is probably for this reason that when I print out a Word document, I’ll scale it down so there are two pages on each sheet—that way the left-right grid remains for my brain to anchor to.
I’m not sure if this is making much sense, but in any case, here’s the point: if I scroll through a Word document on a computer, I lose the ability to spatially anchor my memory onto the grid. There are no left and right pages, and I can’t locate a sentence at the “top” or “bottom” of a page because all of the sentences move up and down as I scroll. Because my memory works spatially, I think I have a harder time remembering things I read on the computer.
I’m sure this could be connected to something Levi-Strauss, Mary Douglas, Rodney Needham, or J.Z. Smith has said about the intelligibility and classification of our social world through bodily relations, but I have to get to that essay now …
You’re not alone! Your description of your reading and memorizing processes, as well as how you even format the Word doc for printing, is exactly the same as me. We certainly lose something when reading it off the screen versus a tangible copy. The question, I wonder, is whether this says something about our habits or our physical makeup. Can we be retrained to read better from the screen?
Like you, I have a hard time reading long documents on the screen because I lose any sense of where I am in the piece. Ditto with copy-editing, although when it comes time to enter corrections, I like being able to view the text at 200 percent.
I do the same thing — going back to locate passages by where they are on the page. The trouble is that often, the passages I’m looking for are not where I remembered them as being. Funny how even with a printed book, they move around like that. The advantage of electronic text is that I can just do a search. But for anything longer than a page or two, I still prefer the ancient technology
There are some very good evolutionary reasons for memory working in this way, beginning with the need to parse things in an actual, physical, spatial environment. Those key sentences and quotes you are looking for are the modern equivalents of predators and prey! And, by the way, I completely understood what you were saying or at least trying to say.