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Using the Memex

I’ve been reading a lot over the past few months, both online and in book form. Not unusual, but I’ve noticed that I retain a lot more from my online reading than from the offline. My recall of names, facts, circumstances, themes, and lessons from articles I’ve read online is excellent, but not so good when it comes to books. Part of it is that I approach book reading as a leisure activity and not as work or study, although I’m not sure the opposite is necessarily true for Web reading (partially perhaps, because I do use the web to brush up on design and programming issues โ€” work stuff). But the bigger reason for the difference is probably due to the nature of what the task of reading entails in those two media.

Books are self-contained. There are 332 pages in my copy of The Selfish Gene (incl. endnotes). There might be a bibliography, but unless you’re in the library, reading up on any of the 200 or so references contained therein would prove challenging. Everything you get with a book is in between its front and back covers.**

With the web, you’re always in the library. It’s not always a proper library (some of the “reference” materials can be a little sketchy), but it’s better than nothing. And the materials you want are very often hyperlinked right in the material you’re reading for instant research gratification. Web reading is a deeper and more active type of reading. I can completely research a particularly interesting topic, jumping from site to site to Google to site and back to Google, hunting down exactly what my brain is jonsing for, and skim over the stuff I’m not so keen on. I’m not dependent on the author of the book to give me exactly what I want; I can “write” my own book of sorts, editing the subject matter as I see fit. It’s this active reading โ€” researching really โ€” that I think is responsible for the much higher rate of retention with online reading.

** “Ha ha, not quite!” you’re rightly saying to yourself. You’ve got your whole lifetime of experience and a healthy imagination to draw upon. Two covers my ass, books are as full as you want to make them. That’s one of the drawbacks of reading on the web for me. My recall is excellent, but I typically don’t stop to ponder like I do with books. There’s always that next thing to click on or research. I don’t have to work out for myself on which points Dawkins disagrees with Stephen J. Gould…I can just go and read for myself. I might recall more from web reading, but I think I get more from books. (Although, online research while reading a book is a very potent combination…if you remember to ponder before scurrying off to the web for easy answers.)

See also:
The internet is shit (seemingly arguing for libraries instead of the internet…like we should have either one or the other, but not both or the universe will explode)
The Lure of Data: Is It Addictive? (NY Times)
Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything (James Gleick)
Project Gutenberg (reading books on the web)
Report: Online Training ‘Boring’ (Wired News, “Studies have shown that onscreen reading retention is 30 percent lower than with printed material.”)
Digital Divide (
As We May Think (Vannevar Bush, Atlantic Monthly)

Reader comments

ZachJul 15, 2003 at 12:09AM

I very often find the same thing true with me. When I sit to read on the computer, I'm going on a mission to gain knowledge whereas if I just open a book or magazine, it is to take up time.

Oh, and that "The internet is shit" thing... well, that's dumb. Both are useful for many different uses.

JoshJul 15, 2003 at 1:04AM

This is true, but books are in almost every case a different kind of knowledge: they're longer, more in-depth, and often primary sources in terms of the thinking and the ideas they contain. It seems to me that most of what's on the web is a summary, a secondary source, like a news story. Sure, you can learn a lot in a short time by reading news stories, but you're only getting a small part of the total picture and you're not truly mastering a topic.

I've learned a lot from the internet, but it's mostly facts, not ideas, and that's an important distinction.

AdamJul 15, 2003 at 1:29AM

Online content is also more current, usually without exception, making it more attractive to us. We like new things.

CarlosJul 15, 2003 at 3:10AM

I'd have to say I disagree with Josh's opinion that the internet isn't the right place to get ideas - it may be the best place. Its immediacy, and inherent democracy, make the spread of & access to ideas possible in ways previously unimaginable. As to the quality of those ideas, well... it's no different than the mix of people you get at a roundtable. Some will always have more to offer than others. Point is, on the web, everyone's invited.

As for the basic paper versus pixels thing, the one thing that nags me about reading online is the tendency to distraction. With a book, sure, I'll occasionally get up to hit the encyclopedia, a dictionary, some other work for reference, but it's otherwise pretty straight going. The web, on the other hand, is a multimedia Times Square, and all that hypertextual neon can really blur your vision.

TimJul 15, 2003 at 3:23AM

We like old things, too, though. There's a reason you keep the books you like around. The wall full of books behind my computer screen feels like a familiar map of where I've been, instantly navigable and accessible to me in a way my browser's bookmarks directory (don't even get me started) is not - I can pick a book off the shelf and start thinking where I left off ten years ago, or refresh my memory about something i once read. Perhaps one reason to better remember things read on the Internet is out of necessity - it's often hard as heck to retrace your steps and found that site where you read something, and even if you bookmarked it, it might be gone the next day, month, or year. I'm not in any way one of those "the internet is shit" folks - i love the fluidity - but you can rely on books' more permanent aspect and remember them less thoroughly, since you can always go back to the page when you need a fact at hand. Distributed memory, I think I once read it called. Perhaps the Internet, or our hard drives, or a peer to peer melding of the two we've yet to see will accomplish the same thing digitally one day - I'd love to have access to any book, any time - but we'll probably have use for hard copies of our favorites, the ones we've read through and return to again and again, for a good time to come.

dowingbaJul 15, 2003 at 9:06AM

"File bookmark" or "make available offline", and it's sure to be there tomorrow.

JoshJul 15, 2003 at 10:43AM

Here's what I mean Carlos -- I read an article in the NYT magazine this weekend about Adam Phillips, a British psychoanalyst who is re-translating Freud (an important step because Freud has been very poorly translated all this time). Now, I can definitely read the NYT article online,a nd I can definitely read lots of other articles (as I have) about Adam Phillips online. But they are all summaries or descriptions of his work -- they say, "Adam Phillips thinks X and Y," but are basically reportage.

That's just the economics of books, etc., at work, but I can't read Phillips himself or know anything beyond reportage -- a.k.a., his ideas -- without reading the books themselves. It's alos just because books are really long and complex things take a long while to communicate. The big exception to this are 'journals,' like Foreign Affairs, which are online and filled with idea-laden articles. Mmmmm.

GluttonJul 15, 2003 at 11:03AM

I like books because they're self-contained units. So and so can ask if you read Fred Doofuses' latest, and you can say yes, and you can discuss it. But a web-surf is open ended, for good and for bad. It's of unlimited size, unlike a book, but the limits of a book give you something to focus on, to discuss. Kind of like a picture frame.

I definitely prefer news online, however.

vitafloJul 15, 2003 at 11:35AM

This is probably a dumb analogy, but I've always looked at online material to be like a 2-year tech school and a book to be like a fine liberal arts college. One just gives you the info you need to know to get the job done and the basic ideas, the other tries to expand your horizons at the same time.

TimJul 15, 2003 at 12:03PM

This will probably change as more books get on the web. A book is really just a printing format - book-length ideas are already available digitally all over the internet which defuse a lot of what we're saying about "books" versus "online," except for Jason's original point, that hyperlinks, additional browser windows, and the availability of a search window nearby, all facilitate a more active style of whatever it is you're reading. I've been happily reading Cory Doctorow's novel in HTML, though I'll surely buy a copy for my shelf, and even six or seven years ago there were places like the Deoxyribonucleic Hyperdimension and Bulfinch's with just reams of stuff to read online. There are still, though, advantages to the bound paper interface that have as yet been impossible to match digitally, and vice versa - that's the main reason why the digital paper R&D that sprung out of places like the Media Lab is so interesting.

CarlosJul 15, 2003 at 1:26PM

Josh, I do see you your point. But I think that for the general, non-scholarly reader, more often than not the 'Reader's Digest' version is what's needed to keep up on things, and the Web does that very well. Hence the allure of things like affinity weblogs that filter out the good stuff for an interested readership. Heck, every one of those on my list is maintained and visited almost exclusively by grad students or scholars, who after all, soak up the reviews in journals because it's simply impossible for anyone to read everything published in a field these days. Let alone keep a polish on a broad education. So you're bound, a good part of the time, to be feeding your brain reportage, any way you slice it.

But when it is time to read that pile of 800-page monographs, well, who wants to do that onscreen anyway?! You'd need to keep an ophthalmologist on call.

GeofJul 15, 2003 at 2:42PM

Isn't the shift due to the communications structure? In general, online writing allows you to get feedback. Unless you're enterprising, you're not very likely to write your author.

The Internet is generally a two-way, discussion-oriented communications structure. Books are one-way lectures tossed at you in an authoritative manner. Neither is inherently bad. Neither is great, either; you have to work up a reputation system on both to figure out who to believe and who to ignore.

carol oJul 15, 2003 at 3:12PM

If you really want to be dazzled by a modern-day Memex, sit down at a reasonably well-funded university library with decent online collections. You have the easy linkability of web-based resources combined with a breadth and depth of scholarly discourse. Probably matters more to anyone who's into subjects not quite as native to the web medium... in other words, you're not going to find anything new on web and design stuff that you probably can't already Google now, but if your subject happens to be any other academic discipline... And you gotta love footnotes that link to the cited fulltext, though in my opinion, that's a feature that's not used enough.

jessamynJul 17, 2003 at 9:44AM

The fallacy for me has more to do with what's available online. It's easy to research things that are well-covered by new media -- computers, technology, lifestyle/culture issues, politics, entertainment, commentary, whatnot -- but tougher to get stuff that is older, and is entirely encapsulated in an older world. So, when you want literary criticism about an author that was famous in the sixties, good luck, especially if you need something citeable for academic purposes.

The web is great for lite research and learning more about personal interests and news-y topics, it's bad for doing thorough research that needs to stand up to scrutiny unless you are in one of a small subset of fields. More online databases, available with library cards or at an academic library, are narrowing this gap, but people being unable to use them effectively muddles this issue. It's sad to see peopel in the library with Lexis-Nexis or fulltext New York Times databases come to the reference desk and say "there's nothing available about my topic"

My tendency is to read the book and then learn more about the topic in the particular areas that interest me online. Sort of like how I watch a movie [this week, The Messenger] and then go learn more by heading to the library to read a proper book on the subject.

Plus, as much as everyone seems to think the contrary, it's tougher than you'd think to find a true range of opposing viewpoints online, especially for older political topics. A lot of radical and fringe-y political information and discussion are still only available in paper form. This is largely an issue of money: it's less likely to be online if you can't attach a "buy me" or "fund my digitzing project" label onto it.

jessamynJul 17, 2003 at 9:54AM

interesting article on the subject "From Thinkers to Clickers: The World Wide Web and the Transformation of the Essence of Being Human" By M.O. Thirunarayanan

The book is also a slow medium. By the time a person buys, borrows or finds another book that has the answer to a question, he or she also has had the time to think about it more thoroughly and perhaps even refine the question. The time spent in thought will in many instances enable a person to generate an answer to the question that aroused his or her curiosity in the first place.

Avi SolomonJul 21, 2003 at 2:05PM

The thing I like about Books is that they don't need Electricity to turn them on:)
I usually print out things to read if I need to ponder from site like this one:

BlakeJul 22, 2003 at 9:15AM

Like jessamyn I have a bias towards libraries, books and print, but I wonder what the future holds. At this point in time we think of a book as just that, a book, self-contained one single book between 2 covers. As things like epaper, and ebook readers are improved upon this may change.
ebook readers are rather blah now, but in 5 or 10 years they may really change how with think about a book, the new ebooks may be just as usuable as print, and be able to hold an entire library. maybe...

This thread is closed to new comments. Thanks to everyone who responded.