Digital or Print, Fast or Slow, Reading is Fingery

The word, digital, comes from Latin, digitalis, referring to fingers and toes. Today, digital refers to technology that uses numerical digits to store or display data. Digital computers still depend on fingers for input and interaction; toes not so much. How the fingers get used depends on the type of reading. Borrowing from Heidegger, reading can be “ready-to-hand” or “present-at-hand.”

Ready-to-hand is the more common type of reading, assimilating information as quickly as possible. We scan online in high mental gear, whizzing from one link to the next, slowly down only briefly when we find something interesting. Ready-to-hand reading uses fingers to click and scroll. We want information at the speed of thought but it only goes as fast our fingers. We invent touch screens to move faster. We imagine even better technologies, screens generated on the fly with our fingers, like in the movie, Minority Report. Voice technologies only help so much. Until computers can read our minds they will continue to be “fingery” machines, managing digital data with the digits of our hands.

A laptop just does not work for holiday novels. Many still read print books for pleasure, while many others prefer e-readers. The manufacturers are learning the haptics of reading, the study of communication through touch. An e-reader is more fingery than a laptop. It is tapered to feel like a paperback. The hand begins a reading by opening a cover and finishes by closing it again. The pages turn with a touch. This kind of reading is still “ready-to-hand,” fast summer reading, not demanding slow or labored thought.

Present-at-hand reading is not so common, the slow analytical read of a complex text, or the rich processing of a beautiful book of art. If ready-to-hand is the routine use of a hammer for nailing, then present-at-hand is what happens when the hammer breaks. It is the boundary at which print books begin to fail as vessels of knowledge, e-books and laptops all the more so. Mental presence is required. Deep reading demands our fingers too. Humans evolved the thumb, the opposable digit that allows us to grasp and behold a book. We judge its weight with our hand. We flip pages constantly, back to the tables and forward to the index. The print book gives instant parallel access to any point in the text, our finger serving as a bookmark. We brush the pages with a finger, estimating how much work remains, book or chapter.

Present-at-hand reading is physical work, enlisting the brain and the body. To this day, students prefer a print book for reading academic texts. The reader who attempts a complex text on an e-reader feels phantom pain. The fingers long for the absent pages. Digital or print, fast or slow, reading is fingery.