The Design Observer Twenty

Véronique Vienne | Essays

Reflections on the Page

In 2008, I read all seven volumes of Remembrance of Things Past on my iPhone. The experience, a journey into Proustian territory that lasted eighteen months, a first of its kind for me (it rates up there with driving across the United States at the wheel of a 1956 Ford pickup truck in the summer of 1980). 

Today, I read printed books. Paper nostalgia is part of it, but it’s not the only reason. Electronic gadgets are no longer what they used to be: they’ve become surveillance devices. The way they shine light directly on your face is reminiscent of old police interrogation tactics. I prefer traditional books—they are not, like, trying to collect information on me.

Privacy issues aside, it is becoming increasingly evident that reading on a backlighted monitor—computer screens, smartphones, or tablets—has a disruptive effect on our cognitive functions. Clinical studies confirm that the majority of people have trouble recalling what they read on a screen. The constant browsing, scrolling, and keyword tracking that characterize our online culture is probably the main culprit. Colorful visuals, icons, and images add a layer of complexity that further derails our original intent.


The digital age has us believe that we are pioneers of communication. In fact, the problems we encounter are nothing new. Backlighted images were already a cause for great concern when stained glass windows were introduced in cathedrals in France in the twelfth century. A feature of Gothic architecture, the innovation was so momentous, culturally and psychologically, that it fueled a debate that polarized the scholarly world for a century. 

Religious authorities—among them Bernard de Clairvaux, founder of the monastic Cistercian order—objected to the bright colors that spilled light directly in the face of worshipers as they stared in awe at the immense stained glass windows of the great cathedrals of the period: Chartres, Paris, Reims, Strasbourg. It was as if the source of divine light was suddenly beamed from above, pointing down at you, claiming your attention. What we now call the “cathedrals of light” were in fact scintillating magic lanterns, hypnotic venues attracting flocks of rubbernecking pilgrims.

With handheld electronic devices you don’t have to crane your neck, a major advantage. Otherwise, the narrative power of the bright colorful visuals is the same. In both cases, viewers are taken hostage by the incandescent beauty of these images.

In contrast, the Cistercian sanctuaries, built in smooth white stones with fewer windows, were designed to be monochrome environments bathed in soft illumination. There, divine light was experienced as a bouncing presence, diffuse yet pervasive, seamlessly reflected by all things. To this day, stepping inside one of these radiant churches—Le Thoronet, Sylvacane, Sénanque—is like entering a part of oneself that is free from distractions.

It’s the next best thing to cracking open a good book. 

Comments [7]

Electronic gadgets have become surveillance devices . . . that is so true. And self-surveillance devices, too. Yet many people don’t see it, or they half see it, and claim that the gains are more than enough compensation. The future will tell. As for paper, is it nostalgia to remain committed to it? For reading, paper is still a superbly functional medium, and exhilaratingly restful to lose yourself in, as you say.
Rick Poynor

Clearly people these days don't really care if they are being monitored. If they were we would have much more outrage at NSA. As much as I love printed books, a digital book has its place and advantages. I would just be happy if more people would read regardless of print or digital.

Meghan Dove

I agree that nothing can compare to a physical, printed book. The tactile stimulation, the smell, and the well defined typography on a standard page will always be my favourite. It does, however, need to be said that there is a distinction between reading on a backlit screen and I think maybe Irma Boom articulated it the beat when she said (paraphrased) that there will always be a place for books that are produced for everyone, a fiction or a biography that is the same in print or as a pdf, but there will also always be those texts, those tombs, those tales that deserve and belong on paper. And that's why the printed and well designed book will never die, because the real readers among us will always be willing to invest in a new best friend of the printed variety.
Meghan Dove

Sorry, there will always be a difference between reading a book on a backlit screen vs. a device created exclusively for reading books with E-ink and there is definitely a place for those digital versions of the printed word...
Meghan Dove

I agree that there are indeed pros and cons to what technology today can offer us. It has definitely benefited in more ways than one from various levels and we are still fully utilizing it to our own advantage. Nevertheless, traditional means should still be preserved to instill positive aspects to our lives and improve our social being. Hence, bring those books out from storage and start the good old fashion way rolling again.
Mark Sindone

An information which is very innovative and it is an interesting idea to learn, and I am very happy with your writing that makes me always learn and learn, thanks for the ideas and creations!
Taposy Rabeya

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