Then a machine began to replace the books and publications in our hand with a lighted screen that opened on to the largest library ever built—the Internet. And the pen or pencil was also, to a large extent, set aside for a keyboard.

Early in the transition away from print and paper, little attention was paid to whether this would impact the way we understood and remembered what we read and noted. The indifference, though, didn’t last.

Writing in Scientific American, Ferris Jabr sums up the decades of study. “Since at least the 1980s, researchers in many different fields—including psychology, computer engineering, and library and information science—have investigated such questions in more than one hundred published studies. Before 1992, most studies concluded that people read slower, less accurately, and less comprehensively on screens than on paper. Studies published since the early 1990s, however, have produced more inconsistent results: a slight majority has confirmed earlier conclusions, but almost as many have found few significant differences in reading speed or comprehension between paper and screens.”

We appear to be adjusting to the new medium for print, something that, no doubt, will prove to be an even quicker lesson for the increasing number of digital natives among us.

And it isn’t as though we are abandoning a natural process. Cognitive scientist Maryanne Wolf reminds us in her book Proust and the Squid that humans aren’t born with brain circuits dedicated to reading. We are taught to coordinate various other functions of our brain dedicated to vision, speech, and motor control to work with the print on a page or a thin sheet of glass. Reading is essentially an overlaid function no matter the medium.


Handwriting, however, is far over on the other side of the equation. We decided early on to write on just about anything we got our hands on. The Sumerians wrote on soft clay, the Egyptians on plant pith (papyrus), the medieval scribes on their sheep, and texters today on Gorilla Glass. The transition to digital writing shouldn’t meet the same resistance as reading. We’re perfectly comfortable writing with chalk on the sidewalk, tattoo ink on our backs, and icing on our cakes. Should be no problem with glass—just give me something to write with.

That “something to write with” has been the problem so far. The early computer styluses with Styrofoam or rubber nubs were terrible. Other attempts along the way have been hit or miss. But now finally, two companies have gotten it right—Apple with its pencil and Microsoft with the Surface stylus.

Apple’s pencil is long and thin, and it feels like a relatively heavy pencil. The stroke is extremely smooth, the alignment of the tip and line are perfect (no lag), and there are no marks anywhere except from the pencil point (wrist protection). The point is pressure-sensitive, so if you use an app like Notes Plus, you can recreate the varying thickness of a fountain pen line or even a calligraphy pen. Like a cedar and graphite pencil, it just works. Pick it up, and there’s no learning curve.

The pencil has a rechargeable 12-hour battery, but if you find yourself running out, you can plug it into the iPad Pro charge port for 15 seconds for an additional 30 minutes of use. In the sketching and painting apps, there are two tilt sensors that let you do shading as you might with a charcoal pencil. Unfortunately, the pencil only works with the two iPad Pros so far.

The Surface stylus isn’t as sleek or weighty as the pencil, and it isn’t without a few glitches, but it writes just as smoothly on the screen. The on-screen Surface keyboard has an option to turn on the pen input. A long empty line appears on the bottom of the screen. There you handwrite text that automatically appears as type in your document above. There’s also the usual list of suggested spellings and predicted words tracking above your handwriting, just as with the regular keyboard. A press on the button on top of the pen opens OneNote, and there you can write notes, draw objects, or mark up a text. The aluminum barrel is slippery, and the two buttons can get in the way, but the Surface pen is a good start.

Right now, of all the various digital writing instruments I’ve tried, the Apple pencil is the state of the art. To get an idea of its impressive potential, try it with Ginger Labs’ Notability app. This app uses most of what the pencil can do with the ease of opening a notebook and picking up a pencil. See the review of Notability in this month’s Tools of the Trade section.

Like so many other things in our lives, the basic skills of reading and writing are on track to join arithmetic in the quiet, massive shift that’s making room for the digital alongside the age-old.

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