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The Magic of Reading

What they call Originality is achieved by getting down to the root-principle underlying the practice. From that origin you think your way back to the surface, where you may find you’re breaking untrodden ground.”

Stanley Morison, typographic advisor to the Monotype Corporation and the greatest type historian of the 20th Century.

Version 1.0 04/27/99

Bill Hill, MS-Bookmaker


This document will always be a draft. I’m learning all the time. Please throw all the rocks you can so I can learn more.


1.Executive summary 4

2. Introduction 6

2.1 First step: understand what works 6

2.2 A General Theory of Readability 7

2.3 What’s this got to do with software? 7

2.4 Why is this a printed document? 8

3. Detailed Conclusions 9

4. Pattern recognition: a basic human skill 12

4.1 Pattern Recognition and Reading 13

4.2 The Concept of Harmonic gait 14

5. The Concept of “Ludic” Reading 16

5.1 Ludic Reading Research 17

5.2 The requirements of Ludic Reading 18

5.3 Highly-automated processes 19

5.4 Eye movement 20

5.5 Convention – or optimization? 21

5.6 Reading and Arousal 21

5.7 An expanded model 24

5.8 Additional decision points 26

5.9 Flow theory and the reading process 26

5.10 “On a roll” 27

6. Previous Reading Research 28

6.1 The Reading Process: physiology and psychology 28

6.2 How we read 28

6.3 Saccades and fixations 29

6.4 Shape and rhythm are critical 29

6.5 Typographic Research 30

6.6 The book as a “system”: Tschichold and Dowding 31

6.7 Tschichold: The rebel who recanted 32

6.8 Achieving good typography 32

6.9 Back to the classical approach 33

6.10 Size DOES matter! 33

6.11 Leading or Interlinear spacing 34

6.12 Dowding: FINER POINTS in the spacing and arrangement of TYPE 35

6.13 Spacing and recognition 35

6.14 Line Length 37

6.15 Dividing words: hyphenation 37

6.16 Tighter setting: importance of ligatures 38

7. How the Book works 39

7.1 A 300-page waterslide for human attention 39

7.2 The logical structure of the book 39

7.3 Words and Lines 40

7.4 Top-down analysis 41

7.5 Visual Cues 41

7.6 Disrupting the flow 42

7.7 Underlying mathematics 43

8. The state of screen reading today 44

8.1 Research into reading on screen 44

8.2 Optimization of Reading of Continuous Text 45

8.3 Paper versus screen 47

8.4 Innovative approaches 50

9. The Readable Electronic Book 54

9.1 Alternatives to OSPREY 55

10. OSPREY requirements for print 57

Font 57

Inter-character spacing 57

Inter-word spacing 57

Line length 57

Fully-justified lines 57

Leading (interlinear spacing) 58

Text area (no. of lines per page) 58

Page size and layout 58

Navigation 58

11. OSPREY requirements for the screen 59

Character shapes are the worst 59

Typeface design does not solve problem 59

ClearType RGB striping font technology 60

LCD problems 61

Font 62

Five typesizes only: 62

Inter-character spacing 62

Inter-word spacing 62

Line length 62

Fully-justified lines 62

Leading (interlinear spacing) 63

Text area (no. of lines per page) 63

Page size and layout 63

Internal navigation 63

External navigation 63

12. Future research and development 63

ClearType 64

Readability 64

Appendix: Readers Anonymous 64

References 67

  1. Executive summary

This report is a new study of reading, how it works, and how to achieve that mysterious state referred to as “readability”. It’s targeted in the first instance at electronic books, but is also relevant everywhere else that text is read.

If the ideas in this document work – and there are very strong signs that they will – they will change the world. That’s a grandiose claim. But reading is a core human task. We were not ready to implement the much-hyped “Paperless Office” in the 1970s and 1980s. The main obstacle to that vision was: How can you have a paperless office, when reading on the computer screen is so awful?

We are about to break through that barrier. And everything will change when we do.

I’ve read around 12,000 pages of research papers, books and articles over the past several months. The (hopefully logical) case that follows is almost an exact reversal of the discovery process that took place.

The top-level conclusions are:

  1. Pattern recognition is a basic behavior of all animals that became automatic, unconscious and unceasing to ensure survival.

  2. Humans have developed visual pattern recognition to a high degree, and human brain development has given priority to the visual cortex that is a key component of the recognition system.

  3. Pattern recognition is key to the development of language and especially writing and reading systems, which depend entirely upon it.

  4. The book is a complex technological system whose purpose is to Optimize Serial Pattern Recognition, so it can be carried on at basic instinctive level, leaving the conscious cognitive processing of the reader free to process meaning, visualize and enter the world created by the writer. I call this system OSPREY.

  5. OSPREY is how books work, and the same optimization can be done algorithmically for electronic books and other computer screens by developing two new technologies, both of which are described in this paper:

  • ClearType font display technology that can greatly improve the screen display of letter- and word-shapes, recognition of which lies at the heart of reading.

  • An OSPREY reading engine that will automatically take structured content and display it according to OSPREY rules.

2. Introduction

This ongoing study into the readability of text on screen was carried out as part of Microsoft’s “Bookmaker” Electronic Books project.

If electronic books are ever to become an acceptable alternative to books in print, readability is the biggest single challenge they must overcome. We can deliver text on screen, and the computer offers significant potential advantages in terms of searching, adding active time-based media such as sound, carrying many different books in a single device, and so on.

But will electronic books be readable? Will people ever want to spend the same amount of time looking at a screen as they spend today reading a printed book?

People still don’t like to read even relatively short documents on screen, whereas they will happily spend many hours “lost” in a book. Unless we can make significant advances in readability, electronic books will be limited to niche markets in which early adopters are prepared to put up with relatively poor readability. Is it merely a question of waiting until screens get better?

Almost 15 years ago, I helped develop a hypertext product aimed at moving us towards the “Paperless Office”. As we know, the Paperless Office has so far been a complete bust; more paper is produced today as a result of the widespread adoption of the desktop computer than at any time in history.

The Paperless Office foundered on the same shoal as the first attempts to produce electronic books – poor screen readability, because reading is the core of everything we do. This paper, I hope, explains what went wrong, and how to fix it. The Paperless Office is now a real possibility. We can make it a reality.

2.1 First step: understand what works

To understand what went wrong, and how to fix it, the best place to start is by asking the question: “What went right?”

There is one undisputable fact: The Book works.

Boiled down to its essence, a book is basically sooty marks on shredded trees. Yet it succeeds in capturing and holding our attention for hours at a stretch. Not only that, but as we read it, the book itself disappears. The “real” book we read is inside our heads; reading is an immersive experience.

What’s going on here? What’s the magic?

Those questions are the starting-point of this study.

Although a great deal of readability and reading research has been done over the past couple of centuries, reading and how it works still remains something of a mystery.

One body of work has focused largely on typography and legibility. Another body of work has examined the psychology and physiology of reading. All the research so far has added valuable data to the body of knowledge. But it has failed to explain the true nature of reading and readability, possibly because it was the work of specialists, each with a strong focus in a single area such as psychology, physiology or typography.

I’m not a specialist, although I’ve been dealing with type for 30 years. This paper takes a generalist approach I believe is the key to understanding the phenomenon of immersive reading.

Some great work has been done on the specifics. But what has been lacking until now has been a way of tying all of this work together. Some important missing pieces were also missing from the puzzle. Writing, printing, binding books, and the human beings that read them together make up a “system”. Analyzing its parts does not reveal the whole picture.

2.2 A General Theory of Readability

This paper puts forward a “General Theory of Readability”, which builds on the findings of these different areas of research, and adds perspectives from the study of information processing and instinctive human behavior, to build a new unified model of the reading process. I believe this model gives new insight into the magic of the book; how it works, and why it works. And thus it tells us how to recreate that magic on the screen.

Something deep and mysterious happens when we read, intimately linked to human psychology and physiology, and probably even to our DNA.

The book as we know it today did not happen by chance. It evolved over thousands (arguably millions) of years, as a result of human physiology and the way in which we perceive the world. In a very real sense, the form of the book as we know it today was predetermined by the decision of developing humans to specialize in visual pattern recognition as a core survival skill.

The book is a complex and sophisticated technology for holding and capturing human attention. It is hard to convince people of its sophistication; there are no flashing lights, no knobs or levers, no lines of programming code (there really is programming going on, but not in any sense we’d recognize today…)

The conclusions in this document could have great implications for the future of books. But books are only an extremecase of reading – a skill we use constantly in our daily lives. Advances made to enhance the readability of books on the screen also apply to the display of all information on computer screens, inside Microsoft applications and on the Web.

This has been an amazing journey of exploration for me. The central question: “What’s going on here?” kept leading backwards in time, from printed books to written manuscripts, to writing systems, to pictures drawn on the walls of caves by prehistoric man, and eventually to primitive survival skills and behaviors we humans share with all other animal forms. At the outset, I had no idea just how far back I’d have to go.

2.3 What’s this got to do with software?

Some of the areas touched on in this report are pretty strange territory for a company at the leading edge of technology at the end of the 20th Century. But computer software isn’t an end in itself. We build it so people can create, gather, analyze and communicate information and ideas. Reading and writing are at the very heart of what we do. The difficulty that most people have in getting to grips with computers is a direct result of the fact that they force us to work in ways that are fundamentally different from the way we naturally perceive and interact with our world.

I came across the quote from Stanley Morison – one of the greatest and best-known names in the world of typography – only at the end of this current phase of work. Morison was talking about the design of new typefaces, but it is great advice for any researcher, in any field.

He is absolutely correct. Trying to get right back to the roots and basic principles involved in reading allows us to analyze the book and see it as a truly sophisticated technological system. And understanding how this technology hooks into human nature and perception makes it as relevant and alive today as when Johannes Gutenberg printed the first 42-line bible in Mainz more than five centuries ago, or when the first cave-dwellers drew the “user manual” for hunting on the walls of their homes.

Understanding the root-principle is key to taking text into the future. The computer can go beyond the book – but only if we first really understand it, then move forward with respect and without breaking what already works so well.

The basic principles outlined in this paper will allow us to focus future research on areas most likely to be productive, to develop specific applications for reading information on the screen, to develop testing methods and metrics so we can track how well we are doing, and to go “beyond the book”.

2.4 Why is this a printed document?

Ideally, this document should have “walked the talk”, and been in electronic format for reading on the screen, demonstrating the validity of its conclusions.

Unfortunately, no system today exists that can deliver truly readable text on the screen. We have a first, far-from-perfect implementation, which is constrained by the device on which it runs. It is already better than anything seen so far, and will improve dramatically over the next few months.

This paper, I hope, explains how to build the first really useable eBook, and defines its functionality. But there’s a lot more work to be done to make it real.

3. Detailed Conclusions

  1. One of the most basic functions of the human brain is pattern-recognition. We recognize and match patterns unconsciously and unceasingly while we are awake. This behavior developed for survival in pre-human (animal) evolution, and humans have developed it to a highly sophisticated level. It is coded into our DNA. The growth in size of the visual cortex in the human brain is believed to have resulted from the increasing importance to us of this faculty.

  2. The book has evolved from primitive writing and languages into a sophisticated system that hooks into this basic human function at such a deep level we are not even aware of it. The effect is that the book “just disappears” once it hooks our attention.

  3. The book succeeds in triggering this automated process because it is a “system” whose purpose is to Optimize Serial Pattern Recognition. From the outside it looks simple – not surprising, since it’s designed to become invisible to the reader. There are no bells, whistles, or flashing lights. But “under the hood” the technology is as complex as an internal combustion engine, and similarly it depends on a full set of variables that must be tuned to work together for maximum efficiency. Much previous research has failed to grasp this because of researchers’ tendencies to take the traditional path of attempting to isolate a single variable at a time. To gain full value from these variables requires first setting some invariable parameters, then adjusting complex combinations of variables for readability. I have called this complete system OSPREY (from Optimized Serial Pattern Recognition)

  4. OSPREY has an “S-shaped” efficiency curve. Readability improves only slowly at first as individual variables are tuned. But once enough variables are tuned to work together, efficiency of the system rises dramatically until eventually the law of diminishing returns flattens the curve to a plateau. Conversely, it takes only two or three “broken” or sub-optimal variables to seriously degrade readability.

  5. Reading is a complex and highly automated mental and visual process but makes no demands on conscious processing, leaving the reader free to distill meaning, to visualize, and to enter the world created by the writer. That world is in reality a combination of the writer’s creation and the reader’s own interpretation of it.

  6. Interaction with this technology changes the level of consciousness of the reader. A reader who becomes “lost” in a book is in a conscious state that is closest to hypnotic trance. OSPREY allows the reader to achieve this state of consciousness by reaching his or her own “harmonic rhythm” of eye movements and fixations that becomes so automatic the reader is no longer aware of the process.

All of the parameters and variables needed to achieve OSPREY are already known for print. They can be duplicated on the computer screen, but some technology improvements are required. Where the computer screen is weakest in relation to print is in the area of fonts and font rendering, which has the greatest effect on the way letter and word shapes are presented to the reader. In the course of this research, the author and others have carried out research in this area and have developed a new rendering technology (Microsoft® ClearType™) that greatly improves the quality of type on existing screens.

  1. OSPREY can be produced algorithmically, with no requirement for manual intervention. Now we have proved that ClearType™ works, all of the required technologies are known. But they have never been assembled into a full system and tuned for the screen with OSPREY goals in mind. Since no such complete systems for displaying text on screens have yet been built, screen display of text is currently on the “low efficiency” segment of the S-Curve. This explains why people prefer to read from paper than screen, especially for longer-duration reading tasks – a fact documented by many researchers, and by our own experiences.

  2. OSPREY technology will allow Microsoft to deliver electronic books that set new standards for readability on the screen. The technology can be folded back into mainstream Web browsing and other software to bring major improvements in the readability of all information on the screen.

  3. Many attempts have been made over the years to develop alternative methods of improving reading speed and comprehension. Examples include technologies such as Rapid Serial Visual Presentation (flashing single words on a computer screen at accelerated rates) that are claimed to greatly increase reading speeds. They have failed to gain acceptance because they do not take the holistic approach needed to achieve the OSPREY state, and fail to take into account the wide variations in reading speed shown by a single reader during the course of reading one book. However, the possibility remains that some new technology can be developed to revolutionize reading, and further research should be carried out to fully explore alternative approaches. Any such “revolutionary” technology will have to be extremely powerful and easy to learn and apply in order to succeed. Not only will it have to improve the immersive reading experience, it will then have to be widely adopted as a replacement for the current system, which has evolved over thousands of years into its current mature technology and is highly bound up with the nature of humans.

  4. We are now building an OSPREY reading engine from existing components and new technologies. For success, the team must continue to have a mix of software developers, typographers and designers. An important part of this project will be work on new fonts for reading on the screen, especially new font display technologies outlined in this paper to squeeze additional resolution from the mainstream display technologies which are likely to remain at or near their current resolution level for some years.

  5. Once an OSPREY system is built, we should carry out further research into cognitive loading – a way of measuring the demands that the reading process makes on our attention. We should compare cognitive loading values for the printed book, for current Web-based documents, and for tuned OSPREY systems. This research will validate the OSPREY approach and provide valuable data for optimal tuning of OSPREY systems. We must develop a range of metrics for immersive reading, and tools to track them.

  6. Using these measures will enable Microsoft to take the book to a new level that is impossible to achieve in print, and then apply the same technologies to all information. Understanding the basic OSPREY principles and implementing a system will enable us to use computer technology to enhance and reinforce the OSPREY effect without breaking it, for example by:

  • Creating new typefaces and font technologies to enhance pattern-recognition, especially for LCD screens.

  • Providing unabridged audio synchronized to the text so the reader can continue the story in places they would normally be unable to read – for example while driving – switching transparently between audio and display.

  • Using subtle and subliminal effects such as ambient sound and lighting to reinforce the book’s ability to draw the reader into the world created by the author. (Subtle is the keyword here: effects must enhance the OSPREY state without disrupting it). This utilizes the “Walkman Effect” to allow the reader to more quickly move from the physical world into the world of the book and keep her attention there by enhancing the book’s already-powerful capability to blank out distractions. At this point, this is merely a possibility; there is no proof that it will work, or that it might not run contrary to maintaining the flow of reading. This should be investigated in further research.

  • Defining new devices or improving existing desktop PCs with displays tuned to the “sweet spots” which are identified by the OSPREY research. Documents can be formatted for these “sweet spots” and intelligently degrade to provide maximum readability on other devices. A key to this will be the implementation of “adaptive document technology” (Microsoft patent applied for) which will automatically reformat documents to be read on any device while still adhering as closely as possible to OSPREY principles within device constraints. This technology, and the devices that run it, will help drive the paradigm shift from the desktop PCs of today to the portable, powerful, information-centric devices of tomorrow.

4. Pattern recognition: a basic human skill

One of the most basic skills of living beings is pattern-recognition. It is a fundamental part of our nature, one we humans share with animals, birds, and even insects and plants.

Pattern recognition is a precursor to survival behavior. All life needs to recognize the patterns that mean food, shelter, or threats to survival. A daisy will turn to track the path of the sun across the sky. Millions of years ago, the dog family took the decision to specialize in olefactory and aural pattern-recognition. They grew a long nose with many more smell receptors, and their brains developed to recognize and match those patterns.

As our ancestors swung through the trees, a key to survival was the ability to quickly recognize almost-ripe fruit as we moved rapidly past it. (Unripe fruit lacked nutrition and caused digestive problems; but if we waited for it to become fully ripe, some other ape got there first…)

So we specialized in visual pattern recognition, and grew a visual system to handle it (including a cerebral cortex optimized for this task).

Pattern-matching in humans makes extraordinary use of the visual cortex, one of the most highly-developed parts of the human brain. Recognition of many patterns appears to be programmed at DNA level, as evidenced by the newborn human’s ability to recognize a human face.

In primitive times, we had to learn which berries were safe to eat, and which were dangerous. We had to learn to recognize movement using our peripheral vision, then use our higher-acuity focus to match the pattern to our “survival database” to evaluate whether it was caused by another ape (opposite sex for breeding purposes; same-sex, possible territorial battle) or a lion (predator: threat).

For our survival, this pattern recognition had to become unceasing and automatic. In computer terms, pattern matching belongs to the “device driver” class of program. It is activated at birth (maybe even at conception), and remains running in background until we die, responding to interrupts and able to command the focus of the system when required.

Anyone who studies animal tracking and survival skills realizes at a very early stage that at the core of all these skills is pattern-recognition and matching.

Jon Young, a skilled animal tracking and naturalist who runs the Wilderness Awareness School in Duvall, WA, spent many years being mentored in tracking and wilderness skills by Tom Brown Jr., one of the best-known names in US tracking and wilderness skills circles.

Jon has studied the tracking and survival skills still used by native peoples all over the world, including Native Americans – who were (and in some cases, still are) masters of the art. He has documented how children begin to learn from birth the patterns essential to their survival.

For example, the Kalahari region of Africa is one of the most inhospitable parts of the world. There is almost no surface water for most of the year. Yet to the tiny Kalahari bushmen this is “home”, and provides all that they need to survive.

One of the first survival skills taught to the Bushmen’s children is how to recognize the above-ground “pattern” of a particular bush which has a water-laden tuber in its root system, invisible from the surface. If this is sliced, and the pulp squeezed, it provides a large quantity of pure drinking water.

All survival skills which involve animal tracking, or use of wild plants for food, medicines, clothing etc., are based on pattern recognition, and learning from birth the right database for the relevant ecosystem. Taking a Kalahari bushman and placing him in the Arctic would pose him a serious survival problem. An Eskimo transplanted to the Kalahari would have different but equally serious challenges.

There are patterns associated with wolf, domestic dog, wildcat, cougar, bear, squirrel, or mouse. Each has subtleties that enable the skilled tracker to recognize different events, such as an animal that is hunting, or running from a predator. There are even patterns within tracks which show when an animal turned its head to the side, perhaps to listen to a sound which means danger, or just to nibble a juicy shoot from a bush as it quietly grazed in the forest.

An expert in survival, such as a native or a well-trained woodsman, is one who has studied enough of the patterns of nature – the tracks of animals, the sounds of the birds, and so on – to have built a large “database” of patterns in his or her memory store.

“Nature provides everything we need to survive - and even thrive - in what we call the wilderness. All we have to do is learn to recognize it,” (Jon Young: 1998).

It is also probably no coincidence that among first uses of symbols we have on record appear to be either records of (or how-to instructions on) hunting.

4.1 Pattern Recognition and Reading

What has all this to do with the life of modern man, and especially with reading? Well, most of us may have left the woods to live in towns and cities, but the woods have never left us. We still use this same survival trait of pattern recognition unceasingly and unconsciously in our daily lives. It’s hard-wired into the organism.

Pattern recognition is how walk down a hallway without continually bumping into the walls. It’s how we stay on the sidewalk and out of the traffic on the roadway. It’s how we recognize each other. Pattern recognition still tells us where to find food – why else would McDonald’s be so protective of its corporate logo?

Modern civilization makes constant use of the fact that we continually pattern recognize and match. Corporate logos, freeway signs, “Walk/Don’t Walk” signals, and so on are all examples.

One of the most pervasive applications of our innate pattern recognition behavior is reading. We learn to read by first learning to recognize the basic patterns of letters. Then we learn to recognize the larger patterns of words. Once we have learned the pattern of the word “window”, we never again read the individual letters; the larger pattern is immediately matched as a gestalt. If we are skilled readers, we may learn to match patterns at phrase or sentence level, or perhaps in even larger units.

Reading is an amalgam of highly automated processes that include word recognition. Seen as a system the task of reading is simply serial pattern recognition. Patterns are recognized as symbols, groups of which are inferred to have meaning. Word recognition is the primary task of reading. In effect, the book takes our highly-tuned survival skill for a walk through a friendly neighborhood park, where almost all the people we meet are old friends whom we recognize immediately (depending on the level of challenge in the content). When we come across a new pattern, we are able to find its meaning (by consulting a dictionary or “pattern database”) and enter it into our memory of stored patterns as a new friend.

If reading, especially of longer texts like books, is analyzed in detail from this viewpoint, the “art” of typography and design can be shown to be a highly-sophisticated technology with a coherent underlying logic which is set up to make Serial Pattern Recognition as effortless as possible. The book is the embodiment of a technology of Optimized Serial Pattern Recognition.

In honor of its wilderness roots, I’ve called it OSPREY.

4.2 The Concept of Harmonic gait

There is another feature of animal tracks that is highly relevant to readability: the concept of harmonic gait.

Every animal has its own specific harmonic gait; the pattern in a group of successive tracks which the animal makes when in its normal relaxed state. Tracks are regularly spaced. In animals with four long legs, for example the dog, cat and deer families, the right rear paw or hoof lands directly on top of the print left by the right front paw or hoof. Trackers call this direct register.

When the animal is moving faster than normal, rear feet land ahead of front feet, until gait speeds up into a canter or gallop, and the pattern changes. When the animal is moving slower than normal, the rear feet land behind the impressions left by the front feet. But even these new patterns are regular and predictable.

Trackers use these regular gaits to analyze animal behavior. Changes in gait are clues to what the animal was doing. Speeding up normally indicates either predatory behavior (e.g. chasing the next meal) or trying to escape from a perceived threat (e.g. when the deer spots movement in its peripheral vision, and matches it to the pattern of “mountain lion”).

These regular gaits have another important use. If a tracker wants to find out where an animal is now, or where it went, he obviously has to follow its tracks. This is easy enough in soft sand, where tracks are deep and easy to see. But when the animal moves over rougher or harder ground, tracks are much harder to spot.

If the tracker knows the animal’s gait, he can predict with reasonable certainty exactly where the next track is likely to be found. He can narrow his search for the next print to the most likely area, find it quickly even if its traces are faint, and confirm the animal’s direction of movement. By using gait measurements (with a “tracking stick” easily made from a fallen branch), trackers can continue to follow the animal in conditions that would otherwise make tracking extremely difficult, if not impossible.

The regular rhythm of the gait acts as a cue to the tracker, telling him exactly where the next pattern-recognition task will take place. The relevance of this will become apparent when we look at typography later in this paper. Books do exactly the same by controlling the pace at which the words are presented and allowing the reader to move through the content at his or her own harmonic or natural gait (which readers change all the time in the course of reading).

The book presents each reader with level ground over which he or she can move at their own pace.

5. The Concept of “Ludic” Reading

A key term that may be unfamiliar to readers of this study is ludic reading. The term was coined in 1964 by reading researcher W. Stephenson, from the Latin Ludos, meaning “I play”. A ludic reader is someone who reads for pleasure.

Many of the conclusions of this paper are reached as a result of examining the technology of the printed book in conjunction with research carried out by psychologists into reading, especially ludic reading. This is clearly the most relevant form of reading to the eBook.

Ludic reading is an extreme case of reading, in which the process becomes so automatic that readers can immerse themselves in it for hours, often ignoring alternative activities such as eating or sleeping (and even working).

A major shortcoming of most of the research carried out into readability over the last hundred or more years is that it has focused, for practical reasons, on short-duration reading tasks. Researchers have announced (with some pride) that they have used “long” reading tasks consisting of 800-word documents in their research.

Compare this with the average “ludic reading” session. Even at the low (for ludic readers) reading speed of 240 words per minute (wpm), a one-hour reading session – which in the context of the book classifies as a short read – the reader will read some 14400 words.

For very short-duration reading tasks, such as reading individual emails, readers are prepared to put up with poor display of text. They have learned to live with it for short periods. But the longer the read, the more even small faults in display, layout and rendering begin to irritate and distract from attention to content.

The consequence is that a task that should be automatic and unconscious begins to make demands on conscious cognitive processing. Reading becomes hard work. Cognitive capacity normally available exclusively for extracting meaning has to carry an additional load.

If we are trying to read a document on screen, and the computer is connected to a printer, the urge to push the “print” button becomes stronger in direct proportion to the length of the document and its complexity (the demands it makes on cognitive processing).

The massive growth in the use of the Internet over the past few years has actually led to an huge increase in the number of documents being printed, although these documents are delivered in electronic form which could be read without the additional step of printing. Why? Because reading on screen is too much like hard work. People use the Internet to find information – not to read it.

Research into ludic reading is especially valuable to the primary goal of this study, finding ways of making electronic books readable. If eBooks are to succeed, readers must be able to immerse themselves in reading for hours, in the same way as they do with a printed book.

For this to happen, reading on the screen needs to be as automatic and unconscious as reading from paper, which today it clearly is not.

If we can solve this extreme case, the same basic principles apply to any reading task.

5.1 Ludic Reading Research

“It seems incredible, the ease with which we sink through books quite out of sight, pass clamorous pages into soundless dreams”, Fiction and the figures of life, W.H. Gass, 1972.

This passage is quoted in the introduction to “Lost In A Book”, written by Victor Nell, senior lecturer and head of the Health Psychology Unit at the University of South Africa.

Nell’s work is unusual and significant because it concentrates wholly on ludic reading, and details the findings of research projects carried out over a six-year period to examine the phenomenon of long-duration reading.

It looks at the social forces that have shaped reading, the component processes of ludic reading, and the changes in human consciousness that reading brings about. Nearly 300 subjects took part in the studies. In addition to lengthy interviews, subjects’ metabolisms were monitored during ludic reading. The data collected gives a remarkable insight into the reading process and its effect on the reader.

For anyone interested in reading research, this book is worth reading in its entirety. I’ll try to summarize the main points, then develop them. I’ve devoted a whole section to this book, because it’s such a goldmine of data.

Reading books seems to give a deeper pleasure than watching television or going to the theater. Reading is both a spectator and a participant activity, and ludic readers are by and large skilled readers who rapidly and effortlessly assimilate information from the printed page.

Nell gives a skeletal model of reading, then develops it during the course of the book.

Fig. 1: Nell’s preliminary model of Ludic Reading

5.2 The requirements of Ludic Reading

Nell gives three preliminary requirements for Ludic reading: Reading Ability, Positive Expectations, and Correct Book Choice. In the absence of any one of these three, ludic reading is either not attempted or fails. If all three are present, and reading is more attractive than the available alternatives, reading begins and is continued as long as the reinforcements generated are strong enough to withstand the pull of alternative attractions.

Reinforcements include physiological changes in the reader mediated by the autonomic nervous system, such as alterations in heartbeat, muscle tension, respiration, electrical activity of the skin, and so on. Nell and his co-researchers carried out extensive monitoring experiments on subjects’ metabolic rates, and collected hard data showing metabolism changes in readers as they became involved in reading.

These events are by and large unconscious and feed back to consciousness as a general feeling of well-being. (my italics). This ties in well to how book typography has developed to make automatic and unconscious the word recognition aspect of the reading process, which we will examine later in this paper.

In the reading process itself, meaning is extracted from the symbols themselves and formed into inner experience. It is clear that the ability of the content to engage the reader (the “quality” of writing), the reader’s consciousness, social and cultural values and personal experiences all play a part in this process.

Nell says the “greatest mystery of reading” is its power to absorb the reader completely and effortlessly, and on occasion to change his or her state of consciousness through entrancement.

Humans can do many complex things two or more at a time, such as talking while driving a car. But one of these pairs of behaviors is highly automatized, so only the other makes demands on conscious attention.

However, it is impossible to carry on a conversation or do mental arithmetic while reading a book. The more effortful the reading task, the less we are able to resist distractions and the more mental capacity we have available for other tasks, such as listening to the birds in the trees or other forms of woolgathering.

One of the most striking characteristics of Ludic reading is that it is effortless; it holds our attention. The Ludic reader is relaxed and able to resist outside distractions, as if the work of concentration is done for him by the task.

The moment evaluative demands intrude, ludic reading becomes “work reading”.

5.3 Highly-automated processes

Skilled reading is an amalgam of highly-automated processes: word recognition, syntactic parsing, and so on, that make no demands on conscious processing and the extraction of meaning from long continuous texts.

Although reading uses only a fraction of available processing capacity, it does use up all available conscious attention. Furthermore ludic reading, which makes no response demands of the reader, may entail some arousal, though little effort.

The term reading trance can be used to describe the extent to which the reader has become a “temporary citizen” of another world – has “gone away”.

“Attention holds me, but trance fills me, to varying degrees with the wonder and flavor of alternative worlds. Attention grips us and distracts us from our surroundings; but the otherness of reading experience, the wonder and thrill of the author’s creations (as much mine as his), are the domain of trance.”

“The ludic reader’s absorption may be seen as an extreme case of subjectively effortless arousal, which owes its effortlessness to the automatized nature of the skilled reader’s decoding activity; which is aroused because focused attention, like other kinds of alert consciousness, is possible only under the sway of inputs from the ascending reticular activating system of the brainstem; and which is absorbed because of the heavy demands comprehension processes appear to make of conscious attention.”

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