That slight tremor on August 15, 2013—which passed without much notice in the rest of the world—was the earth shifting at The Georgia Review. On that day we began accepting electronic submissions. On August 18th an essay came in online that caught my eye. But after I read it a couple times, I found myself making a few lukewarm notes in preparation for moving it along to the next reader: “strong start, good closing, fuzzy in the middle—an ambitious essay that lost its focus.” For some reason that I don’t recall now, I decided to print the essay out and give it another try. You know where this is going: I immediately understood what the author was up to and loved the piece. It has been accepted for publication, and the whole incident has given me pause to realize that I don’t think that I read as well—that is, with the same level of perception—from a screen as I do from paper. Nothing against my iPad, which I dearly love, or even the big old Dell on my desk, but when I read at my job I’m evaluating the efforts of working writers, most of whom care and grind and hope. I owe them the courtesy of my complete attention and comprehension.
If you hold an opinion and look hard enough, you can find a study to back it up. Sure enough, the International Journal of Educational Research* reports a carefully constructed study of seventy-two Norwegian tenth graders in which two comparable groups were tested after reading either PDF or paper versions of texts running 1,400-1,600 words. Eight pages of education-speak and statistics boil down to this: “The results of this study indicate that reading linear narrative and expository text on a computer screen leads to poorer reading comprehension than reading the same texts on paper. . . . If texts are longer than a page, scrolling and the lack of spatiotemporal markers of the digital texts to aid memory and reading comprehension might impede reading performance.”
The study’s author, Anne Mangen, and her co-authors point to navigation issues as the main contributor to their results. First, scrolling “imposes a spatial instability which may negatively affect the reader’s mental representation of the text”; second, on-screen reading restricts a reader’s access to an entire text. “We know from empirical and theoretical research that having a good spatial mental representation of the physical layout of the text supports reading comprehension.” In summary, the authors quote a 2006 Canadian study: “Difficulties in reading from computers may be due to disrupted mental maps of the text, which may be reflected in poorer understanding and ultimately poorer recall of presented material.”**
By holding that now-accepted essay submission in my hands, I had become completely engaged. I could quickly flip back and forth among the pages to pick up images and threads of the argument. My “mind’s eye” helped me to recall and reconstruct the “mental map” to the extent that even after I passed the essay along I could tell you what was being discussed and where in the text the discussion occurred. Instead of being left with a screen gone dark, I retained a vital piece of writing.
My sudden immersion into reading and evaluating manuscripts online has reinforced for me the importance of a framework—a mental map—in shaping nonfiction into an essay. However, I don’t mean to imply here that merely committing a piece of writing to paper rather than a computer screen will automatically provide that necessary map; it has to be inherent in the thought that precedes writing and as a constant presence throughout the writing. Without an author’s help, a reader is left hiking a random path. The details are still present—and they may be profound, dramatic, or beautiful—but lacking context and commentary, they lack sense and purpose.
Keeping a reader on track might call for simply providing ongoing and specific references to time and place; it will certainly involve transitions. However, the most-often overlooked, and perhaps the most important, addition to a writer’s map is a little more telling and a little less showing. Not every aphorism is misleading. Some—Warren Zevon’s “Enjoy every sandwich” comes to mind—can be quite useful, even important. But believing something just because it’s repeated endlessly is a mistake. “Show, don’t tell” is one of those tidy saws that, although filled with good intention, has replaced thought, and it has put authors in mortal fear of straying, even briefly, from the concrete. But in an essay, a writer should be pursuing an idea, as well as relating a story. It’s okay, even necessary, to “tell”: to take some time to ruminate—generalize, synthesize, analyze—get abstract for a moment, then return to the details.
Alfred Korzybski warned against confusing reality with the definition of reality when he coined the often-used phrase, “the map is not the territory.” But I would suggest that the structure and direction a map provides are the tools that inform effective nonfiction: work that enables true insight into reality rather than trying and failing at the task of “writing” the reality itself. An essay’s mental map is not the territory, nor should it attempt to be. Consider Borges’s brief story, “On Exactitude in Science,” which describes a country in which cartography had reached such perfection that “the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it.” That map, of course, proved useless because it wasn’t a map at all. The nonfiction equivalent, without forethought and design, without an internal structure, will leave readers feeling that they’re scrolling down an endless page, looking in vain for a cairn, a blaze on a tree.
Douglas Carlson joined the staff of The Georgia Review as an assistant editor in 2007. His essays on natural and cultural history have appeared frequently in magazines and journals as well as in several anthologies, including A Place Apart (W.W. Norton, 1993) and The Sacred Place (University of Utah Press, 1996). His work has been collected in two books: At the Edge (White Pine Press, 1989) and When We Say We’re Home (University of Utah Press, 1999). His most recent book, Roger Tory Peterson: A Biography, was published by the University of Texas Press in 2007.
“Here Be Digital Dragons” is adapted from Douglas Carlson’s Georgia Review online editorial essay, “Trying to Refold My Mental Map.”
* Mangen, Anne, et al. “Reading linear texts on paper versus computer screen: Effects on reading comprehension.” International Journal of Educational Research. 58 (2013): 61– 68. Web. 23 Sept. 2013.
** Kerr, M.A. and S.E. Symons. “Computerized presentation of text: Effects on children’s reading of informational material.” Reading and Writing. 19.1 (2006): 1-19. Web. 17 Oct. 2013.