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Reading Under Digital Constraints

Media and Usage
Ce que le numérique fait à la lecture. Distinguer les supports, questionner les usages
Efectos de la digitalización en la lectura. Distinguir los soportes, cuestionar los usos
Cécile Rabot
Traduction de Katharine Throssell
Cet article est une traduction de :
Ce que le numérique fait à la lecture [fr]


Les écrits sur le numérique et ses effets sur la culture sont nombreux, mais insuffisants pour qui veut tenter de comprendre ce que le numérique fait à la lecture littéraire ordinaire. De nombreux discours, optimistes ou inquiets, pointent les possibles ouverts par les nouveaux supports ou les menaces qu’ils font apparaître. Les neurosciences semblent pouvoir conforter les deux positions, selon l’interprétation qu’elles font de leurs données ; elles n’offrent souvent qu’une compréhension limitée en n’intégrant guère les variations sociales des usages et en replaçant peu les usages dans une pratique et dans un contexte. Les sciences de l’information et de la communication se concentrent plus largement sur les dispositifs, les usages et usager·ère·s qu’ils supposent ou favorisent, que sur leurs appropriations réelles. Les statistiques publiques mesurent des usages sans pouvoir en rendre compte. Ce dossier de Biens symboliques entend réinscrire la lecture dans les perspectives offertes à la fois par l’histoire du livre et par les sciences sociales. Pour sortir de débats largement idéologiques qui opposent les anciens et les modernes, il se propose de réunir des enquêtes empiriques qui à la fois distinguent les supports et sont attentives aux variations sociales entre les usages. Le dossier s’ouvre par un entretien avec Roger Chartier qui situe la lecture numérique dans le temps long de l’histoire de l’écrit et interroge la rupture que le numérique a opérée dans l’ordre des livres. Trois enquêtes sociologiques sur des pratiques de lecture ordinaire mettent ensuite cette interrogation à l’épreuve du terrain : qu’est-ce qui change dans le passage de l’imprimé aux écrans pour les lecteur·rice·s socialisé·e·s dans l’ordre des livres qui deviennent des adeptes du support numérique, testent un dispositif de prêt de liseuses ou au contraire n’imaginent pas du tout transposés en numérique les profits qu’ils tirent du livre papier ? Le dossier explore enfin quelques usages propres permis par le numérique, de pratiques savantes ordinaires qui passent par l’usage de corpus numérisés à des pratiques de lecture/commentaire d’une production littéraire de bande dessinée nativement numérique. Si « métamorphose du lecteur » il y a, selon l’expression de Pierre Assouline, où se situe-t-elle ? Sans prétendre en préciser toutes les facettes, ce dossier vise à montrer l’intérêt de l’enquête empirique sur une question qui a fait couler beaucoup d’encre mais reste largement ouverte.

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1Digital technology has had a profound impact on the cultural industries and certain cultural practices, specifically in the audiovisual sector. As a whole, film and music, from production to distribution to consumption, have been affected by what some call a “digimorphosis” [numérimorphose] (Granjon & Combes 2007). Today, online platforms play an undeniable role, and streaming has revolutionized access to sound and images, music, radio, film, series, and videos. Has digital technology produced a similar “revolution” in texts and reading practices (as Rieffel 2014, for instance, suggests)?

2Digital technology has had multiple effects on the book industry, as with other sectors of the cultural and information industries. In a recent work, Bertrand Legendre attempts to classify these effects by following the book production chain in various editorial sectors (Legendre 2019). From production to manufacture, distribution to promotion, no stage of this process has been left untouched by the development of digital tools—and some have even been profoundly transformed. Word processing, correction, and composition software, digital writing platforms, image databases, and other documentation available online, but also e-mail and collaborative documents have greatly transformed the ways in which authors and editors work. Online sales platforms, book social media sites (from Goodreads to Booktube and Bookstagram), blogs by booksellers or ordinary readers, digital libraries and online catalogues have all transformed distribution and ways of getting information about books (see Leveratto & Leontsini 2008; Wiart 2017) and of acquiring them.

3But what about reading per se? The term “reading” has various meanings. We can question how the transition to screens has impacted on “reading” in the wider sense, defined as “deciphering the written in view of procuring sense” (thus excluding an even larger meaning which would refer to decoding all kinds of signs). Intentional informative reading, in which the reader looks for information, has indeed been profoundly transformed by the internet, search engines, online dictionaries, and collaborative encyclopaedias such as Wikipedia, or even forums (see Jouët & Rieffel 2013; Barbe, Merzeau, Schafer 2015). How does digital technology impact on reading as a cultural practice or pastime, i.e. as a practice that could be qualified as disinterested in the sense that it does not have a specific aim, even though it often in fact fulfils several functions (see Mauger & Poliak 1998)? This kind of reading for pleasure is what Armando Petrucci defines by the tautology “reading for reading’s sake” (Petrucci 1990). It involves experiencing emotions, learning without a specific aim in mind, culturally educating oneself, and thinking. Has this been transformed by the arrival of digital technology? Whether the term is used to refer to literary objects (in the wider sense of the term, including various genres that have no distinction of legitimacy) or essays, it is traditionally associated with books (and still in part exists through them). If a “metamorphosis of the reader” indeed exists (Assouline 2012), how does digital technology play into it?

4On 4 May 2017, the Bibliothèque nationale de France organized a seminar as part of the Ateliers du livre series1 called “Reading Digitally: Realities and Perspectives,” which this dossier builds upon. The starting point of this seminar was an acknowledgment of the abundance of texts on the “digital revolution” in the media and publishing worlds. This abundance is doubtless a mark of the publishers’ own stakes in an issue that puts the nature of their work and perhaps their identity, if not their very existence, into play. These numerous texts were mainly theoretical and prospective essays—especially those from the dawn of the twenty-first century. These primarily unempirical texts examined what the digital sphere could do to readers. Furthermore, the authors’ positions were often quite clear (although the authors were not particularly engaged in a reflexive approach), either emphasizing the hope kindled by these new technologies, or underlining the threat that they seemed to represent for cultural industries or even culture itself. We shall return to these texts and their assumptions below.

5Other more empirical publications were limited to considering digital technology as a context, for instance, analysing “French cultural practices in the digital age”(Donnat 2008) or “Reading and readers in the Internet age” (Evans 2011). Others, like those cited above, focused higher up in the book chain, from production to the act of recommendation and the possible effects on readers, their information and selection modes and their acquisition and sharing practices, without exploring the reality of these effects or at least including reading practices on digital mediums. Others (which we shall come back to) contributed quantitative elements to these practices in view of measuring them, but without allowing for a full understanding, i.e. understanding their relevance for the respondents, or the logic that could unwittingly drive them. In contrast, the aim of the seminar was to question the effective practices of digital reading, bringing together elements of knowledge produced in variable disciplinary frameworks (from sociology to neuroscience through history and information and communication sciences), which is also the perspective for the present dossier.

1. Between Delight and Lamentation

6Digital reading has given rise, during the first decade of the twenty-first century especially, to varied discourse ranging from delight to lamentation. This mutatis mutandis recalls the two pitfalls of ‘miserabilism and populism’ as highlighted by Claude Grignon and Jean-Claude Passeron in the study of popular culture (Grignon & Passeron 1989). Some voices present digital reading as a revolution equivalent to the invention of the printing press or the shift from volumen to codex, which might open up unsuspected possibilities by deeply modifying our relationship to knowledge and creation. For others (perhaps a majority), it crystallizes conservative fears by foreshadowing the death of books—and, with it, of real culture—to the profit of entertainment: it thus represents a decrease in quality requirements, the dangers of relativism or the dispersion of attention.

7Optimistic voices showcase the possibilities opened up by the “digital revolution.” The literature on offer has become practically infinite. Information is accessible remotely and instantly. Digital technology is also linked to the specific functions that it generally (though not systematically) offers. These functions facilitate interaction (comments, sharing, etc.) as well as access to information and connections (via search tools and hyperlinks). Faced with some difficulties (lexical or referential, for instance), thanks to integrated dictionaries, readers are able to find solutions much faster than they could before using dictionaries, encyclopaedia or other available works. If they wish to share their opinion or the text itself, they can share or comment upon it instantly or publicly, well beyond their close circle of family and friends, which was previously the only audience with whom they could discuss the books they read. They can also exchange with the texts’ authors quickly and directly (with potential repercussions on the text itself or its follow-up) (see Petitjean & Houdart-Merot 2015). It is much easier to do so now than previously, when readers would write a letter to the publisher or the author (see Lyon-Caen 2006). Such intertextual browsing and extended literary sociability facilities contribute to the fascination triggered by the use of digital technology, which is seen as a tremendous opening up of possibilities (at least theoretically speaking).

8Discourse that points towards the dangers of this shift in tools and practices is more common, or more visible. Dominique Boullier writes: “Web 2.0 is not a fashion, our relationship to digital networks has changed, and in-depth reading has been sucked into the same whirlpool for the long term” (Boullier 2011: 41). This image of a whirlpool reminds us of the “torrents of paper” conjured up in the nineteenth century to describe the mass distribution of industrial-scale printed production, deemed dangerous for female readers or less experienced male readers (Artiaga 2007). Like the industrialization of publishing, digital technology is accused of putting readers in danger by carrying them away or distracting them. The titles in French of many of these texts indicate the register of controversy and praise: “Books Need Us” (Steiner 2008); “Don’t Hope to Get Rid of Your Books” (Carriere & Eco 2009); “The Case for Books: Past, Present and Future” (Darnton 2011); “Against Digital Colonialism: Manifesto to Keep on Reading” (Casati 2013); “The Havoc of Screens” (Spitzer 2019).

9Discourse about “the digital sphere” gathers many different types of digital technology into this expression, without distinguishing between them, which leads to hasty and sometimes excessive generalizations. The digital can only be understood in relation to paper books and the value conferred to them. Paper books have become the symbol of culture—a humanist, literary, and often vaguely defined culture—and elicit attachment that becomes all the more visceral as they appear to be threatened (along with their attached symbolism). Discourse on the risk of paper books disappearing in fact goes hand in hand with discourse that deplores a decrease in reading (literature), and perhaps even a crisis of (legitimate) culture.

10Screens (of computers, tablets, and smartphones, just as was the case for cinema and television) are seen as competitors to books. They allegedly threaten reading (or at least “real reading”), by diverting attention and claiming free time that could otherwise be used for reading. In this light, how are we to conceive of on-screen reading? Is it just an oxymoron indicating the impossibility of such a practice?

2. Is Digital Reading Really Reading?

11Essayists who reason with an abstract “reader,” rather than actually observing the reality of practices, evaluate digital reading as an inferior practice from the outset. Is on-screen reading still reading? Can “real reading” be practised on a medium other than a printed book? In other words, can we practise long, in-depth and disinterested reading digitally?

12The negative effects allegedly caused “by screens” (a decrease in attention and concentration capacity, lowered cognitive performance, isolation and decreased empathy) (Spitzer 2019) seem to be in complete opposition to the qualities that reading, specifically literary reading, is deemed to develop and for which it is encouraged. Literary reading is notably valued for its capacity to increase the reader’s experience, widening and deepening it, because literature unpacks phenomena which often escape perception in the flow of everyday life (see Nussbaum 1990; Bouveresse 2008; Laugier 2006). What happens when this reading, associated with culture, is practised on a screen?

13Does the “technical” side of digital mediums lead them to being more easily associated with utilitarian, professional, or didactical reading? Does it seem “cold” and thus antagonistic to a more aesthetic reading practice which emphasizes readers’ sensitivity and seems more readily associated with the book’s materiality as an object, as described by Michel Melot (Melot 2006)? Many readers indeed express their attachment to the feeling of paper or the smell of ink and claim to be attentive to font choices or manufacturing quality. This hypothesis would lead us to question the choice certain libraries make to offer e-readers exclusively filled with French classics, whose value is deemed to reside in their form at least as much as in their content.

14Researchers in literature often deplore digital reading because of their belief in the virtues of “close reading.” They indeed consider this slow form of reading, which is attentive to language and is taught in university and secondary school literature classes (see Renard 2011), as the only true literary reading. This is the point of view that Katherine Hayles holds: “As long as this belief still holds, digital reading will be seen at best as peripheral compared to our main preoccupations, deferred to the margins as not ‘really’ reading or at least not interesting or attractive reading” (Hayles 2016: 126). John Guillory thus opposes “close reading” to fast reading practised on a digital medium (Guillory 2010: 8), as though close reading could not be practised on a digital medium.

3. Skim Reading?

15Does digital technology really make us read differently? Does seeing the number of books available and the links between them favour fast reading and the apprehension of a large number of documents, through skim reading which, according to Dominique Boullier, enables the reader to know “a little about a lot of things” (Boullier 2011: 51) and evokes the practices of Musil’s librarian, whose professional secrecy consisted in never being tempted into reading a single volume in extenso in order to handle his collection (Musil 2004: 553). Does it favour a more personalized and potentially richer progression as suggested by Christian Vandendorpe, an “extensive reading” in a “tabular” mode which selects chosen information from amongst a number of possibilities? This is opposed to a linear, “intensive reading,” attentive to the text’s subtleties, allegedly because there are no references (either hyperlinks or notes) or neighbouring documents (either iconographic or textual) (Vandendorpe 1999).

16Do digital texts in actual fact encourage skim reading, discontinuation, and diversion from the text, as their detractors claim? Do they engender forms of attention diversion which harm understanding (Wolf 2007; Mangen, Walgermo, Brønnick 2013)? Do they make it harder to go back to verify something, to find a clue or a specific passage, and, in the end, to memorize the information because it is not fixed on the device and thus impossible to locate visually or through touch using the reader’s perception of the book’s thickness? This is what various neuroscientific experiments tend to prove, and we shall try to give a brief overview of them here.

17Thus, neurological studies carried out by Thierry Baccino and Véronique Drai-Zerbib at the Laboratory for Uses in Digital Technology analysed, on the one hand, the assumptions of reading facilities on digital and paper mediums (what they require in terms of attention, navigation, relation, etc.) and, on the other hand, the uses of these two types of medium (Baccino & Drai-Zerbib 2015). Experiments founded notably on a study of eye movements followed by questions put to users allowed them to establish the way in which users perceive information, the attention paid to the different elements present on one page, and their capacity to understand and memorize a piece of information. Going from paper to digital mediums appears to be rather unfavourable to digital devices: attention decreases, understanding weakens, and memorization becomes more restricted.

18Hyperlinks seem in part responsible for this phenomenon. Studies thus show that a difference in the understanding of a text can be observed (whatever the medium) according to whether it is offered in a linear version or one enriched with hyperlinks (Zhu 1999; Miall & Dobson 2001): hyperlinks call upon working memory, and thus cannot reap as much other information as a linear text would, which results in a decrease in general understanding when hyperlinks are more abundant (Hayles 2016: 133).

19Other studies result in a more positive vision of digital reading, showing that it activates zones of the brain that are linked to decision-making and complex reasoning that are less called upon when reading on printed mediums (Centre de recherche sur la mémoire et l’âge, cited by Guillaud 2010: 23). Nevertheless, the phenomenon seems to be less linked to the digital medium itself than to the way in which information is organized on the web, in tabular rather than linear mode, forcing the user to constantly evaluate, select, and link. Certain neuroscientific studies thus state that what changed perceptions and uses was not the passage from paper to the screen, but rather the different functions that the screen also offers, the decision-making process that it imposes, the distractions or temptations that it offers. Browsing possibilities—commenting, sharing, even possibilities that are completely disconnected from reading which are nonetheless included in the medium—indeed require a specific kind of discipline on users’ behalf if they want to concentrate on the actual text for a length of time (Cohen 2009; Dehaene 2007).

20It is thus important to distinguish the specific characteristics of the medium itself and the content organization. The web page model (with block texts, displayed alongside images or videos, and enriched with hyperlinks) is often used in order to create and organize online digital content: paper is readily associated with a type of finitude, with which the digital marks a break by proposing quasi-infinite possibilities of extension and referral, notably via hyperlinks. But no content organization is inherent to digital media. E-readers, for instance, tend to reproduce the organization of paper books and the pages that they are composed of, and, conversely, the complexity of web pages can largely be found in printed schoolbooks such as they are designed by publishing houses nowadays (Bonnéry 2015).

21What about reading on a device connected to the internet, which allows for instant access to a wide array of information and resources, as well as immediate sharing possibilities by email or social media? And, conversely, what about digital formats that mimic paper formats, such as scanned documents from an archive or even the PDF versions of a scientific paper (that the researcher in fact might even print)? These examples point towards the necessity of identifying forms and formats, as well as the whole range of properties and functions on digital devices.

22Through the attention that it has given to the effects of objects and forms, the history of books thus invites us to deconstruct the hypernym “digital” and consider the heterogeneity of mediums that it comprises, from computers to readers through smartphones and tablets, and of formats, from blog posts to e-books: we do not read a press article, a scientific article and a novel in the same way, even on a digital medium. Depending on the nature of the text, our attention is different, more or less constant and in depth. Also, the perspective that motivates and orientates reading is not the same. What is more, reading varies according to subject matter and the reader’s interest. If these variations are already well established, what effects result from different mediums? What changes when reading a text on paper from when reading on a digital device (see Guillaud 2010), and what effect does using a backlit pad, an electronic ink e-reader, a smartphone or a computer have? In this regard, what is owed to the actual medium and what is owed to the new formal possibilities the medium allows for?

4. Other Mediums for Other Reading Purposes?

23What is the reality of digital reading practices? Does digital technology make people who did not usually read on paper do so? Does it change the practices of those who already read on paper? If so, in what way? Quantitative studies on reading prove the coexistence of digital reading practices alongside reading on paper, even on the same reader, in a cumulative logic often attested to in the sociology of culture (Coulangeon & Lemel 2009). A survey published in June 2018 thus revealed that 35% of 12-25-year-old interviewed confirmed that they read their books both on paper and on digital devices (compared with a mere 2% of readers exclusively reading digital books and 47% reading exclusively printed books) (Vincent Gérard & Vayssettes 2018). What advantages do these readers see in digital mediums?

24Do they use digital devices to read something other than what they read on paper, or in other circumstances—as suggested by the frequent occurrence of both practices in the same individual? What is the relationship between reading on a digital medium and reading on paper? Is it inscribed in a logic of opposition and competition, as suggested by discourse which invokes digital technology as one of the factors for the “reading crisis” or the “death of books”? Is it simply inscribed in a medium substitution logic, which does not radically change the practice, but leads to a quasi-transposition of the same uses from paper to digital format? Or does it prolong reading on paper in a cumulative logic through other advantages, permitting other social uses or favouring certain uses over others (Mauger & Poliak 1998)?

25The gap between sales figures and data on reading tends to prove that digital reading hardly concerns bought texts. Indeed, digital books only constitute a small amount of sales in France today (7.6% of book sales revenue in 2017 according to key figures produced by the Ministry of Culture’s Book and Reading Service, which also adds that only 4.4% of French people bought at least one digital book in 2017). But the sociology of reading has long underlined the non-coincidence of buying practices and reading practices, as some bought books are never read, while, conversely, some books are never bought but borrowed or acquired through other means (see Renard 1995; Rouet 1995; Guittet 2018). Digital technology certainly reduces the possibilities associated with buying books as gifts for others, compared with paper books which occupy a place of choice amongst gifts. However, it increases possibilities for pirating. Digital mediums therefore allow access to texts that would otherwise not have been bought. Do digital mediums thus encourage users to read texts that were not previously read in paper format, due, for instance, to their price (that one could not or would not invest), or to their reduced accessibility (books that were difficult to find or access, archive material that has been digitized, and so on)?

26Quantitative studies also show wide gaps according to editorial sectors (see Legendre 2019), as practical books or romance novels, for instance, are much more present in digital sales than general literature. Does this phenomenon owe to questions of legitimacy? If so, is it simply due to these texts’ distribution modes? Or do readers want to avoid exposing the book cover, and thus the genre or publishing house label, which can act as social class or social stigma markers? Do digital devices ensure a kind of more appropriate confidentiality for the kinds of text that readers would not like to be seen with?

27More generally, do digital mediums such as e-readers help to minimize the weight of “editorial enunciations” (Souchier 1996) in readers’ construction of the work’s meaning? Paratexts, notably editorial ones, indeed play an important role in the way in which readers perceive texts (Genette 1997). Paratexts in books are constituted by means of framing and accompanying a text (preface, notes, author’s bibliography, etc.), but especially by the cover (title, graphics, iconography, and back cover blurb), which is not constantly displayed on digital devices. This disappearance of the cover can also play in the opposite direction, restricting the profits of distinction derived from being seen with such and such a book or displaying it in one’s library (see Mauger, Poliak, Pudal 1999). Or else reducing the probability of deciding to read a book after simply seeing someone else reading it (see Casati 2013: 16).

28Furthermore, unprecedented forms of text have sprung up thanks to digital technology. If digital technology contributes towards “configuring scripturalities” (Paveau 2015), what kind of reading does it give rise to? What about the reading of “enhanced” texts, which integrate new possibilities (links towards other texts or images and specifically animated images, sound, etc.)? What about the possibilities for collaborative writing, restructuring, and appropriation permitted by certain new formats? Is the readership of these renewed forms only made up of other writers or also of ordinary readers? Do readers only read these new forms, or do they also pay attention to creative formats on printed mediums? Are digital creations today’s space for the new literary avant-garde?

5. Integrated Functions and Anticipated Uses

29Digital technology not only offers formatted texts but also functions that allow users to personalize their text (turning pages, copying, note-taking, etc.). Some are less innovations than transpositions of gestures performed at least by some readers on printed books. Are they all the more invested because they are reproducing gestures that are already familiar? For instance, what kind of readers use note-taking systems? What kind of writing practice does this lead to? Digital mediums also integrate dictionary-type tools and hyperlinks that ease any potential lexical or referential difficulties in the text. Do they allow for a more complete and precise understanding of the text? Admittedly print readers could already consult footnotes or reference books in order to clarify any doubts that might have come up while reading. Does easier access to complementary information encourage users to consult it? Do readers check definitions more often than when they had to interrupt their reading to reach for a dictionary?

30If the dematerialization of files is making the material trace of reading and the memorial medium constituted by an individual’s or a household’s physical library disappear (see Mauger, Poliak, Pudal 1999), do virtual libraries also play a similar memory-aid role? Does the possibility of keyword or text search facilitate browsing through previously read books that have been in part forgotten (see Bayard 2006)? Or is the experience of digital reading inscribed in an ephemeral temporality in which each text read replaces and erases the former, in the same way as texts disappear from the screen?

31Do the tools integrated into some digital devices go so far as to generate new uses? If digital tools do not seem to be enough to create the desire to read and initiate reading practices (Barbagelata, Inaudi, Pelissier 2014), do we for instance start taking notes or highlighting although we would never have dared to do so in a sacrosanct paper book? Or read a book in its original language because the integrated dictionary allows us to find the meaning of unfamiliar words with one click? Can people whose reading habits have been interrupted by eyesight problems return to it thanks to the font magnification functions provided, for instance, by e-readers?

32Beyond these real uses, do these functions also have symbolic value simply because of the theoretical possibilities they open up? Possibly the simple fact of having the option to do something (and knowing that one can) plays a part as much as the practice itself. Having a library means not only having books to read, but also knowing that one has books to read. Likewise, choosing a digital format means knowing that one has a large number of texts at hand (which largely exceeds what one will be able to read). Thus, one will (or would) be able to link them with other texts, deepen the reading endlessly, or even intervene in the literary field as a critical mediator, which could itself have repercussions on actual production.

33Can we observe uses that conform to what was imagined by the designers of these facilities or, conversely, forms of misappropriation? Many studies, especially in information and communication sciences, indeed centre on the uses that are a priori allowed for by certain devices. Madeleine Akrich thus suggests considering that a “script” is inscribed in the technical object’s design: it integrates anticipated use scenarios that the user could follow or sometimes transform, but that in part determine the space of possibilities (Akrich 1987). In this view, some studies on digital reading centre around the reader hypothesized by the editors and designers of digital objects and formats (Tréhondart 2014; Saemmer 2015). What about the reality of uses, compared with the imagined users? Do the appropriations of facilities vary according to readers’ habitus?

6. For a Social Science of Digital Uses

34Only empirical studies allow us to depart from abstract discourse and try to establish the representation and use of such devices. They especially help to grasp the logic that underpins the use of devices and understand the differentiation principles that are owed not only to the devices themselves but also to other factors. The neurobiological approach is interesting in that it is based on precise experimental studies which use sophisticated techniques ranging from eye-tracking to brain imagery. But this approach observes uses without usually being able to account for them. Furthermore, it scarcely emphasizes social variations observed between the subjects of a study. Yet some rare studies establish differences between readers which are not only age-based or generational, but to different relationships to technology, to cultural background and to “the digital sphere” as a symbolic category (Boullier & Crétel 2013). It remains for us to study mediums and readers in their full diversity, using social science tools, in order to try to understand what is at stake in these uses and non-uses of digital technology. Which variations can we observe from one reader to the next, and what variables are these variations linked to?

35What role do professional, family, and social environments play in the adoption and appropriation of a digital medium for reading? We understand the importance of peers and those who recommend reading choices (see Guittet 2018). How do these play into choosing to read on a digital device? Does the presence of early adopters in a peer group lead to the practice’s dissemination through imitation or initiation (see Miguet 2014)? How do socially constructed representations of technology and reading (with the values and norms associated with them) intervene in the use of devices (see Paquienséquy & Miguet 2015)?

36To what extent are variations in use due to degree of familiarity with the medium (digital technology in general, or the specific digital device used)? Is this degree of familiarity in part generational—with younger generations who, thanks to an early digital socialization (with smartphones, tablets, or video games), may have developed digital skills that are transposable from one device to the next? Conversely, can a lack of familiarity with digital technology in general distract from digital mediums (and thus explain non-use) or lead to aborted uses, i.e. disappointing experiences never to be repeated?

37Are “digital reading skills” also correlated with certain forms of cultural capital independent of the digital experience? Can we distinguish a technical ease among them which may be medium-specific (and may increase with early digital socialization and experience) and broader cognitive skills linked to handling writing (perception of information, attention to form, information collection, data linking, hypothesis construction, reasoning, using strategies for better efficiency, etc.—see Goody 1978)? Are these cognitive skills also at work in extra-digital practices, specifically in reading on paper, and transposed onto a digital medium with probable variations according to readers’ social characteristics? This would account for social variations observed among digital media uses, included within the same generation known to be familiar with digital technology (see Mercklé & Octobre 2012).

38This investigation is admittedly a difficult one to carry out. Studies on digital reading face the same difficulties as those that explore reading in general through questionnaires or interviews. Legitimacy and self-staging effects can lead people to emphasize or downplay certain practices (see Mauger, Poliak, Pudal 1999). Above all, respondents have often forgotten part of what they have read, and, even more so, what motivated such and such a choice. Digital tools in this respect thus have the advantage of being able to keep a record of elements that escape users themselves, such as progress through a book, unfinished books, research, purchases, or time spent on a certain item or operation. Collected by platforms and site “cookies,” these data are difficult to access for researchers, or are (thankfully) only accessible without links to other data pertaining to an individual’s social characteristics. Research modalities that would allow for the collection of such information for scientific purposes still need to be invented. But only a survey, based on social science tools, would allow us to grasp their uses and logic.

39The present dossier aims to bring together empirical studies from social science, not only to be able to grasp the social distribution of these practices, but principally to extract their logic. This is less about measuring the scale of a “revolution”—which all studies describe as in fact more moderate, or at least less radical, than what we might have imagined at the dawn of the twenty-first century—and more about trying to grasp what is at stake in the use, aborted use, or non-use of digital technology, through the study of specific cases. It also involves shifting our focus from the medium to its uses and users, taking into account their social position and diversity, marking a break with many works that only consider an abstract Reader independent of any context or social characteristics. In the practice of digital literature reading, how do users’ representations (of digital technology, books, literature, etc.), their uses (adoption, selection, reading, comments, sharing, etc,), the cognitive processes they use while reading (perception, selection, relating, memorization, understanding, etc.), their more general practice beyond the device (readerly, cultural, and intellectual practices), and the social properties that characterize them (age, generation, qualifications, social class, professional group, gender, etc.) come into play? How in this context does digital technology differ from print?

40Beyond knowledge of the evolution of reading practices, this dossier aims to contribute to a reflection on the uses and effects of the writing’s mediums (McLuhan 1967; Goody 1978) and technological devices (Jauréguiberry & Proulx 2011) through empirical data and analyses produced in different disciplinary frameworks (from sociology to information and communication sciences through history). How does the device (i.e. the medium, and the functions it contains, but also the discourses that accompany it and the context in which it is used) determine uses or a space of possible uses? How do users perceive the device, and do they make the most of the possibilities available, or perhaps reinvent them? How do these uses vary socially depending on the context of use and the users themselves, the aims they strive for, their skills and patterns of perception? Are these patterns of perception, skills, and aims themselves influenced by their experience of the device? How can we distinguish the effects of the medium itself from the nature and organization of its content, and social context (the abundance of cultural production and available information, time acceleration, etc.)?

7. Uses Transposed to Innovative Practices

41This dossier begins with a historical perspective. By investigating the most important moments in the history of books and reading, Roger Chartier has analysed the gradual establishment of an “order of books” (Chartier 1992; 1996). In our interview, he re-examines the effect of digital technology on this order of books. Is it inscribed into this order as a new form, as was the case with the pocketbook, or does it operate as a revolution that would open up to a new order? Refined case studies on the Bibliothèque bleue de Troyes, for instance, but also on Shakespeare’s or Cervantes’ writings, allowed Roger Chartier to bring to light the critical importance of the medium and the need to consider the role of the materiality of cultural objects in the construction of meaning by their users (see in particular Chartier 2015). It is from this perspective that the present dossier aims to assemble studies that are both circumscribed and specific, attentive to the effects of devices but also to their inscription in a social context in which they are both produced and used by users who are themselves socially situated.

42Three sociological surveys, which constitute the first part of this dossier, examine the digital practices of literary reading by readers whose reading habits are mainly constructed from printed mediums. Gérard Mauger looks at the main results of a qualitative survey carried out with Paul Gaudric and Xavier Zunigo, which aimed to question the effects of digital media on individuals who were both avid readers and users of digital technology, not only alongside reading, but in their actual reading practice itself (Gaudric, Mauger, Zunigo 2016). Amongst these readers that digital technology did not distract from reading, what changes did the survey find? Does digital technology make people read more (for those who already read a lot or those who did not read much)? Does it lead to fragmented reading? Does it make readers lose their points of reference? More than a revolution, the survey unveils the observable continuities between digital and print reading practices and in particular the way in which social differences are re-enacted.

43Stephanie Kellner is interested in a specific type of readership made up of library users who borrowed e-readers on offer by their library and experimented with the device. This study was inscribed in a wider analysis of the development of digital media in libraries, from ministerial policies to adoption by librarians and the library’s audience. It thus allows us to grasp the social structure of this specific readership that these e-reader users made up. It also points out a kind of goodwill on their part that is linked to the interiorization of a positive image of digital technology (but also of the library that passes it on) while maintaining a traditional relationship with reading which prevents continued use of the device.

44Emmanuelle Guittet also confronts the representations of digital reading and those associated with printed books. She does so with a study not on digital reading but on novel reading, which is still the form of literature that is most commonly read nowadays, while regularly affected by the alleged “reading crisis.” Guittet establishes that digital reading is generally scarcely practised by these novel readers and that it is not really considered as an alternative to paper. The interviews carried out with these readers mainly describe what is at work in the physical and symbolic relationship to printed books. They thus allow us to grasp what is allegedly missing in the use of a digital medium.

45While these three studies tend to show that literary reading of traditional genres is in the end hardly or badly transposed digitally (or else for mainly practical reasons and without a real rupture with the rest of the practice), what about forms and formats that are either made accessible thanks to digital means or are originally digital (i.e. conceived for the specificities of a digital medium and thus exploiting the new potential it offers)? It is undoubtedly in these cases where it contributes notable added value (and not in the cases where it simply copies print) that digital technology might give rise to real adoptions and above all to truly new uses. As for scholarly research, digital technology has thus profoundly modified the way researchers work, the sources they may use (with immediate access to a large amount of previously inaccessible data), the way in which they get their information, with variations from one discipline to the next (see Chartron, Epron, Mahé 2012) and even the way they write, although all of the possibilities offered by digital technology are usually not fully harnessed (Tirole & Coutant 2014).

46Philippe Chevallier, a curator at the Bibliothèque nationale de France, focuses on a digital document database which basically has no parallel in France, namely the Gallica database which gathers more than five million digitized print documents. These digitized documents are thus visually identical to their print versions, with two small differences: possible colour and contrast variations and above all a two-dimensional flattening (thus losing the thickness of page and book). They are above all accessible at any time or place by any computer user with an internet connection. Has this mass digitization resulted in a democratization of access to archive material? Are the texts read by people other than the researchers who had the privilege of being able to consult them in the library? How are they read and what kind of adoption does this lead to? How do platform-integrated editorial and indexing processes play into selection and reading practices? Though the study could be further deepened, Philippe Chevallier sets the scene for a reflection on new uses through the restitution and comparison of the results of two studies carried out by the Bibliothèque nationale de France itself among Gallica users. He specifically questions the way in which history and literature research practices can be modified by such a digital library, but also by the way in which it is mobilized by other types of user within what Joëlle Le Marec and François Mairesse call “ordinary erudite practices” (Le Marec & Mairesse 2017).

47The final paper analyses another strictly digital practice, which combines reading (not only on digital mediums, but also originally produced digital material) and writing, according to an increasingly frequent combination of two practices whose combination could already be observed in printed books, but which seem to be even more united in a digital order which emphasizes experiential commentaries and “reading to write.” Nolwenn Tréhondart and Alexandra Saemmer’s works question readers’ representations that underlie the creation of digital reading offers. These representations are decisive in the sense that they determine available functions and thus possible adoptions of the device (Tréhondart 2014; Saemmer 2015; Saemmer & Tréhondart 2014; 2017). Nolwenn Tréhondart analyses the way in which readers appropriate literature reading offers created for the internet, namely a literary soap opera in the form of a digital graphic novel.

48This dossier does not so much aim to cover all devices and digital reading situations, but rather wishes to open up questions and point towards the benefits of empirical studies that are precise, although circumscribed. This could encourage more studies to be carried out, and thus go beyond the flow of discourse that has accompanied the first decades of the internet, in which the fight of old against new is constantly played out.

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1 The Ateliers du livre are a series of workshops reflecting on books, along with the institutions and practices that are linked to them. They are organized by the Bibliothèque nationale de France and take place over two days annually. Each year, the spring edition is co-organized by the book trade and the master’s programme in book-related professions at Paris Nanterre University. It deals with contemporary issues, in this case digital reading.

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Cécile Rabot, « Reading Under Digital Constraints »Biens Symboliques / Symbolic Goods [En ligne], 7 | 2020, mis en ligne le 20 novembre 2020, consulté le 30 novembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Cécile Rabot

Université Paris Nanterre/Centre européen de sociologie et de science politique-Centre de sociologie européenne (Cessp-CSE)

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