Christian Vandendorpe: the nature of digital reading

Image (courtesy of Google)

This blog post is in response to Christian Vandendorpe’s “Reading on Screen: The New Media Sphere.” Related information can be found in his novel From Papyrus to hypertext: toward the universal digital library.

In Vandendorpe’s article, he discusses the three modes of reading including grazing, browsing, and hunting.  These three modes derive from the way that our ancestors once collected food. Explaining how the screen invites and resists these modes, Vandendorpe sheds light upon the ways in which the computer has transformed the way that we process information.

The early Roman scroll

Vandendorpe first offers a history of the transformation of the book from the Roman scroll, to the codex, to a more modern-appearing book including page numbers and chapter titles. This brief history allows for the reader to understand the evolution of reading and how the computer has adapted and diverged from previous text forms.  One of Vandendorpe’s main arguments is that many of the benefits of the codex were lost when text went to screen.

The early codex

To begin, Vandendorpe defines grazing as a type of reading and/or information gathering in which the reader absorbs all information in a book, discovering the big picture or the main point. Vandendorpe narrows the definition further by referring to this type of reading or information gathering as “continuous reading.”  To explicate, a reader who sits down at various intervals to read a text will extract a message from the text as a whole. This process of “continuous reading” occurs most often when readers need to engage themselves in a text requiring the creation of a “fictional universe.”  Furthermore, this type of reading is entailed when a reader is required to ingrain in their memory a sequence of arguments found in the text.

Vandendorpe argues that while the screen dominates in terms of searching and browsing, it does not offer nearly the same benefits as text on paper when it comes to grazing. The drawbacks lie in the fact that people cannot hold the book and feel the same closeness to the text. Additionally, the physicality of the screen and the technical complications of the keyboard and mouse make the grazing experience more difficult. In sum, the screen seems to act as a barrier between the reader and the text in grazing mode.

Secondly, Vandendorpe discusses a mode of reading and information gathering called browsing. In this mode, the reader absorbs only the information that is of interest to them.  The reader does this by skimming through large volumes of text until they find something that catches their attention. To clarify, the reader does not begin this endeavor with an aim to collect particular information. This type of reading is often associated with newspapers, catalogues, magazines, etc.

Internet browsing

Vandendorpe argues that browsing has adapted very well to the screen, and he provides evidence of its success. Notably, he points out that that the web has been termed a ‘browser’, allowing its users to mosey from one web page to another, browsing information.  By entering a simple phrase into a browser, users can graze topics that interest them.  Vandendorpe recalls that newspapers and magazines, often grazed in print, were understandably an immediate early success on the web.

Thirdly, the relatively new mode of hunting is the most ambitious of the three modes.  When hunting, a reader searches for certain information. They hope to be rewarded for reading by finding that particular information. This mode emerged near to year 1000 when dictionaries became organized in alphabetical order; a phenomenon extended to books in years 1200 and 1300.

Search engine Google

Vandendorpe points out that the screen has adapted to hunting mode mainly through the introduction of the search engine entitled Google. Google allows its users to type in a phrase, quickly offering a vast number of sites full of related information. Instead of leafing through many books to find particular information, users can pinpoint information in a matter of seconds. The more information that is available on the browser, the better the chance is that the user will find what they are hunting for—a probability equation which has served as the impetus behind the expansion of the web.

Throughout the article, Vandendorpe discusses various drawbacks of the web such as sizing of letters, poor pixel technologies, font complications, etc. Vandendorpe does, however, point to the PDF as holding the greatest semblance to the famed codex.

Since this article’s publication in 2006, much as changed in the world of computers. This fact must be taken into consideration when reading. E-books (Kindle and Nook) have become popular, the Google library has grown, and social media sites have become more popular than ever.


I believe Vandendorpe would now agree that the E-book is much better than the PDF in terms of its similarity to the codex. In semblance to the PDF, users are able to highlight, zoom and flip pages. However, the E-book’s pages physically look like a book, and the effect upon the reader is much more intimate. Users can hold the E-book in a similar fashion as they would to a book. For these reasons, I believe that Vandendorpe would hold steadfast to his argument that the screen does not compare to the benefits of the codex. However, he would likely praise technology for its advancements.

I personally still prefer the feeling of a book in my hand, the binding lined from countless intervals of reading. I respect the simpler advantages of the book–a book does not need to be plugged in and charged before I can use it. I don’t need to lug a power cord around with me. With a book, I do not have to fear that I will spill coffee on it and ruin it forever, and I save my eyes from the fatigue brought on after only an hour of staring at a screen.


On another note, social media sites were not nearly as much of a phenomenon when Vandendorpe wrote this article. Facebook was only two years old then, and now it has over 750 million users. I would be interested to hear his take on such social media sites, which, in my opinion, allow for grazing, browsing and hunting modes, yet in a different fashion. Drawing from my experience, you can graze Facebook looking at profiles aimlessly while drawing general conclusions, browse and pick up information of interest, or hunt for particular information (such as a particular profile or events page). However, I would say that these modes of reading are somewhat downgraded on social media web sites. In sum, Christian Vandendorpe’s “Reading on Screen: The New Media Sphere” is an article that offers great insight. However, it is also an article that must be continuously edited to keep up with the ever-evolving world of computers and technology.

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