LDS scriptures can be difficult to read. One reason is that their language is unfamiliar. The argument has often been made that we should quit using the KJV Bible, or at least supplement it with a more recent translation (for example, here’s Steve Evans, here’s Julie M. Smith, here’s DKL, and here’s Grant Hardy on the topic). But I’m thinking of a different reason our scriptures can be hard to read: their design.
I got to thinking about this issue recently after reading Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. Carr argues that reading stuff on computers and other electronic devices encourages us to read broadly but shallowly, to jump from one written work to another rather than engage any of them in real depth. He says (based on research on how people read online documents) that one reason we engage such writing less deeply is because we’re distracted by links:
The need to evaluate links and make related navigational choices, while also processing a multiplicity of fleeing sensory stimuli, requires constant mental coordination and decision making, distracting the brain from the work of interpreting text or other information. Whenever we, as readers, come upon a link, we have to pause, for at least a split second, to allow our prefrontal cortex to evaluate whether or not we should click on it. The redirection of our mental resources, from reading words to making judgments, may be imperceptible to us–our brains are quick–but it’s been shown to impede comprehension and retention, particularly when it’s repeated frequently. As the executive functions of the prefontal cortex kick in, our brains become . . . overtaxed. [p. 122].
Our scriptures clearly don’t have links in them (I’m talking here about hard copy scriptures). But they do have other features that might cause the type of constant minor distraction that Carr describes links as having in online text. The two features that I think most obviously work like this are footnotes and verse/chapter divisions.
Footnotes are so common in our scriptures that it’s easy to lose track of just how many there are. To me, they’re more conspicuous in their absence (e.g., in Alma 56, p. 349 has only three footnotes) than in their presence, which is a strong statement about how common they are. At the other end of the spectrum, there are 68 footnotes in 3 Nephi 11, more than one and a half per verse. It’s true that this is probably toward the higher end of footnote density, but it’s also likely that we read more significant chapters with more footnotes more often. On the bright side, as far as distraction is concerned, it’s nice that footnote references are superscripted and italicized, so they’re probably easier to read past than are links in online text.
Verse divisions, and to a lesser extent chapter divisions, though, seem to me to be far more distracting than links. Carr laments that our reading is interrupted because we have to briefly make a decision with each link about whether to follow it or not. Verse divisions don’t even allow for any decision-making: they are deliberately designed to interrupt the flow of our reading. How can I get into the flow of a story or sermon when I’m interrupted every sentence or two by a new line and verse number?
Somewhat tangentially, I wonder if our tendency to argue by proof text, in other words, to yank snippets of scripture out of their context to support our ideas, might not be related to the use of verse divisions. By “our” here I mean Mormons, but this could easily describe lots of other Christians too. As a missionary, I saw many arguments between fellow missionaries and people we contacted that were fought on both sides using proof texts. Needless to say, everyone’s Bibles had verse divisions that facilitated the snippet snatching.
Getting back to my major point, I wonder why chapter and verse divisions were put in our scriptures in the first place. Not knowing, I’ll guess that they were added to the Bible in order to make it easier for people to refer to very specific bits of scripture, and when we Mormons got extra scripture, we carried the practice on for similar reasons. The divisions certainly do succeed in making bits of scripture easy to refer to and find. But I wonder if the cost they impose in terms of lost comprehension is worth the benefit of easy reference.
I suspect it’s possible that we can have our verse divisions and feast on the text too. I know I’ve run across editions of the Bible that are far easier to read than our own, even setting aside the content of the translation. Such editions typically retain verse numbers but make them look like our footnote references, shrinking and superscripting them to make them easier to read past. As an added bonus, where scripture consists of poetry, they often use line breaks that match the lines in the poetry rather than the verse divisions.
The current editions of our scriptures are now about 30 years old. I’m not sure when a revision is due out next, but when one comes, I’m hoping that, in addition to having updated footnotes and headings, it is also designed to be easier to read. The verse numbers solution that’s already out there seems like one good way to improve readability. As far as footnotes go, I’m less sure, mostly because I haven’t paid attention to how they’ve been handled in other Bible editions. One possibility would be to have the text contain no mark at all indicating the presence of a footnote. The footnotes themselves could then simply list the verse number and the word they were tagged to. This would be in line with how I’ve seen references handled in a number of non-academic non-fiction books. The text has no mention of the reference; endnotes simply tell what page number and sentence they’re referring to.
So what do you think? Do you find verse divisions or footnotes distracting or am I unusual? Are there other design features of our scriptures you find difficult?
- 20 February 2011