Citation: “A New Metaphor for Reading.” Invited contribution to “Room for Debate” forum on “Does the Brain Like E-Books?” New York Times, 14 October 2009.


Initially, any new information medium seems to degrade reading because it disturbs the balance between focal and peripheral attention. This was true as early as the invention of writing, which Plato complained hollowed out focal memory. Similarly, William Wordsworth’s sister complained that he wasted his mind in the newspapers of the day. It takes time and adaptation before a balance can be restored, not just in the “mentality” of the reader, as historians of the book like to say, but in the social systems that complete the reading environment.

Right now, networked digital media do a poor job of balancing focal and peripheral attention. We swing between two kinds of bad reading.