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Is electronic reading changing our brains?


Friends of the Library Cultural Series questions the future of the book

When the Kindle landed on earth circa 2007, author Mark Cunningham found a new obsession.

Since then, he has embarked on a non-stop, personal research campaign investigating the differences between reading text in print and reading it digitally. He wants to know how the digital experience might change the way we read, write and process information.

As part of the nonprofit Oregon Humanities' “Conversation Project,” Cunningham explores his thoughts in “From Print to Pixels: The Act of Reading in a Digital Age,” a free discussion at the Forest Grove City Library at 7 p.m. Feb. 5.

Author of two historical novels, “The Green Age of Asher and Witherow” and “Lost Son,” Cunningham also has written book reviews and cultural commentary for “The Oregonian,” “The New York Times” and other publications.

His ideas are influenced by everyone from Socrates to cultural critic Neil Postman to communications philosopher Marshall McLuhan to brain-science author Nicholas Carr.

Centuries ago, Cunningham notes, humans shifted from the ancient oral tradition of storytelling when Germany's Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, opening up communication and spreading literacy to the masses.

As books became available to everyone, people no longer gathered in public squares to hear storytellers. People brought books inside their homes and read in solitude.This new print culture was such a dramatic change that in the 1960s McLuhan coined it “the technology of individualism.”

But today, “Reading is no longer an individualistic activity,” said Cunningham. “We live in an electronically configured world,” which means our mode of understanding it is on the verge of change, again.

Cunningham quotes Postman: “Technology always has unforeseen consequences and it is not always clear, at the beginning, who or what will win, and who or what will lose.”

As books launch from our private libraries to the electronic commons, people are reading and engaging with text differently, said Cunningham, who cites Carr’s explanation of how technology — and the way we interact with it — can re-shape our brains and thoughts at the cellular level through a process known as neuroplasticity.

Traditional print is very linear, Cunningham said. It requires careful construction of the text, the building of one idea on another. Reading a printed page takes us further into ourselves, whereas in digital text, clicking on a hyperlink takes us somewhere completely different and in a direction of broad diversions and exploration of ideas.

The way we write is also changing, Cunningham said. Historically, print is a slow process from creating a masterful work to publishing and finally review by an audience. But today’s online writers feel liberated and empowered much like poets in the oral age who recited in front of a standing crowd.

Cunningham predicts print books and e-books will co-exist and “definitely ought to co-exist.” But like many who grew up with print, he worries about a digital takeover.

“What might happen to our great institutions of local culture, like independent bookstores or libraries?” He tries to imagine how schools would change.

In discussions, however, Cunningham has been pleasantly surprised to hear from parents who bought Kindles for their school-age children, only to have them say, "I want a real book."

“I assumed the younger generation had grown up primarily electronic,” he said, “but actually there is sort of a yearning for that old-fashioned experience of a book.”