A disjointed little essay by Cory Doctorow tries to argue that you do like reading off of screens. In it he makes light of the fact that he welcomes distractions from e-mail, IM, YouTube, etc., though it could help explain his bizarre logic. Some excerpts:
"I don't like reading off a computer screen" — it's a cliché of the e-book world. It means "I don't read novels off of computer screens" (or phones, or PDAs, or dedicated e-book readers), and often as not the person who says it is someone who, in fact, spends every hour that Cthulhu sends reading off a computer screen. It's like watching someone shovel Mars Bars into his gob while telling you how much he hates chocolate.
But I know what you mean. You don't like reading long-form works off of a computer screen. I understand perfectly — in the ten minutes since I typed the first word in the paragraph above, I've checked my mail, deleted two spams, checked an image-sharing community I like, downloaded a YouTube clip of Stephen Colbert complaining about the iPhone (pausing my MP3 player first), cleared out my RSS reader, and then returned to write this paragraph.
This is not an ideal environment in which to concentrate on long-form narrative (sorry, one sec, gotta blog this guy who's made cardboard furniture) (wait, the Colbert clip's done, gotta start the music up) (19 more RSS items). But that's not to say that it's not an entertainment medium — indeed, practically everything I do on the computer entertains the hell out of me. It's nearly all text-based, too. Basically, what I do on the computer is pleasure-reading. But it's a fundamentally more scattered, splintered kind of pleasure. Computers have their own cognitive style, and it's not much like the cognitive style invented with the first modern novel (one sec, let me google that and confirm it), Don Quixote, some 400 years ago.
The novel is an invention, one that was engendered by technological changes in information display, reproduction, and distribution. The cognitive style of the novel is different from the cognitive style of the legend. The cognitive style of the computer is different from the cognitive style of the novel.
Or look at digital video. We're watching more digital video, sooner, than anyone imagined. But we're watching it in three-minute chunks from YouTube. The video's got a pause button so you can stop it when the phone rings and a scrubber to go back and forth when you miss something while answering an IM.
And attention spans don't increase when you move from the PC to a handheld device. These things have less capacity for multitasking than real PCs, and the network connections are slower and more expensive. But they are fundamentally multitasking devices — you can always stop reading an e-book to play a hand of solitaire that is interrupted by a phone call — and their social context is that they are used in public places, with a million distractions. It is socially acceptable to interrupt someone who is looking at a PDA screen. By contrast, the TV room — a whole room for TV! — is a shrine where none may speak until the commercial airs.
The problem, then, isn't that screens aren't sharp enough to read novels off of. The problem is that novels aren't screeny enough to warrant protracted, regular reading on screens.