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“Lost in an iPad: Narrative engagement …”

Equally important for engagement in a narrative is the unobtrusiveness of the display or substrate on which the written text appears. Readers do not want to be interrupted by being forced to pay attention to the paper, binding, or spine on which they engage narrative stories; they want to become “lost” in a book (Nell, 1988). Analogously, interface features of digital devices should recede into the background during reading, enabling engagement with the narrative story world. This requires, for instance, that readers ignore the ergonomics of page turning and text navigation. The failure of dedicated, electronic literature (e.g., hypertext novels) to reach a wide audience is plausibly related to the fact that the reader has to engage actively in navigational decisions during reading and interact — cognitively and physically — with the work. This constant interaction, Holland (2009) argues, makes immersion in the “world” of the hypertext story or poem impossible: “The [real] world cannot evaporate, nor can we feel transported into the world of the story. Instead, we are busy at the computer.” (p. 41). Given such apprehensions, it is important to determine empirically whether readers’ engagement with a literary narrative is affected by whether they read it in print or on a tablet. The experiment reported here was designed to do so.

Theoretical background “Sense of the text” on paper and screen Empirical research has examined cognitive aspects of text reading on paper and screens, and the available results are mixed. Some recent studies report little or no difference in comprehension between paper and screen reading (Margolin et al., 2013; Kretszchmar et al., 2013), whereas other studies suggest that reading lengthy linear texts on screen may impede the high-level processes underlying comprehension, metacognition, and recall (Ackerman & Goldsmith, 2011; Jeong, 2012; Kim & Kim, 2013; Mangen, Walgermo, & Brønnick, 2013; Wästlund, Reinikka, Norlander, & Archer, 2005). Of particular relevance to the present study is research demonstrating the adverse effects of the spatio-temporal intangibility of digitized texts on reading comprehension (cf. Mangen et al., 2013). When reading on paper, readers have immediate sensory access to text sequence, as well as to the entirety of the text. They can discern visually, as well as sense kinesthetically, their page by page progress through the text; the paper substrate provides physical, tactile, and spatiotemporally fixed cues to text length (Mangen, 2006; Sellen & Harper, 2002).

In contrast, when reading on screen, readers may see (e.g., using page numbers) but not kinesthetically sense their page by page progress through the text. Hence, overview of the text’s organization and structure (Eklundh, 1992; Piolat et al., 1997) — the reader’s “sense of the text” (Haas, 1996) — may be diminished. While such loss of text length overview and of location in the text may matter for reading in general, having a “sense of the text” may matter especially for narrative genres. On the one hand, because narratives are based on a chronological ordering of actions and events, a parallel kinesthetic sense of the unfolding reading event may support immersion in the narrated world. On the other hand, separation from this kinesthetic sense of the physical reading event may be precisely what prevents immersion in the narrative world — and becoming “lost” there. Research to date does not enable affirmation of either of these conflicting possibilities.

—  Mangen, A. & Kuiken, D. (2014) “Lost in an iPad: Narrative engagement on paper and tablet.” Scientific Study of Literature, Volume 4, Issue 2, Jan 2014, p. 150 – 177.