Today’s consumers crave to feel understood, and that includes readers. Although the romantic image of Elizabeth Bennet with her back against a tree, bent gracefully over her favorite book, may be what we all hope we look like when we’re reading, the reality is more likely to include a) a contorted body in an armchair, b) a desk and a head leaning heavily forward on one hand while the other hand maintains pressure on the open book, or c) some version of reading in bed, where way too many muscles are unconsciously engaged. Whatever your usual reading position, you have likely experienced the feeling of frustration accompanied by the thought, I’ve been reading in this terrible position for two hours and am fairly sure I now need physical therapy. Most often, pain develops in the cervical spine, which is the place—like the spine of your book—holding everything together. How can we promote a positive book culture when reading is associated with a negative physical experience?
Assuming the publishing world were to accept responsibility for leading the movement in ergonomic reading solutions to save spines everywhere, a few points need addressing. First, we need to be aware of what the field of ergonomics looks like today. Ergonomics in the workplace and home offices, as well as in mattress and pillow design for sleeping, have dominated the conversation thus far. Second, we should identify the relevant tips and products that could be useful for readers. Although this may seem obvious, readers are unlikely to think they are doing harm to their spines unless they become the targeted audience. Third, we must innovate. We need to work for the reader in the design department. My focus is on the neck pain that 13 percent of Americans are experiencing right now (according to my main resource for this post, a blog by physicians called Spine-health). Other health concerns connected with reading for long periods of time, whether in print or digital format, include eye fatigue, insufficient blood flow, and improper breathing. By recognizing these issues and addressing them to the best of our ability, we can ensure reading moves into the future as a healthy activity.
Design solutions to neck pain associated with reading range from prioritizing reader comfort and accessibility in regular decision-making to creating brand-new product features, digital services, and partnerships that support the reader. Is the book wide enough to be held open without strain? Would a spiral-bind or Coptic stitch binding allow the book to lie flatter? To give advice on reading positions, could publishers create a free insert or digital tool connected with the sale of their books? The question I want to highlight, however, is this: Is the text readable from a healthy distance? In this area, ebooks hold an advantage with the option of increasing text size. Printed books should be designed with readability in mind for all, rather than just printing extra-large text versions that can cause embarrassment. This simple solution could allow readers to prop their books up at eye-level, on their knees, their dog, a pile of pillows, an angled desk, or, gasp, a reading stand. While the world has been shocked by the effects of “text neck” on our youth, the unhealthy habit of flexing the neck forward to read and respond to messages on a cell phone, avid readers have been dealing with the same condition for centuries. (Seriously, check out Nature’s Potent Methods, circa 1899, page 538). Watch the Spine-health video describing the effects of text neck, and you’ll understand why it’s preferable to keep just one bowling ball balanced over your shoulders.
Publishers need to make themselves experts on the reader in order to stay in competition with Amazon, other used booksellers, and all the free material available on the web. We cannot ignore the physical condition and habits of the reader. Showing people we know what issues make it difficult to read as much as they would like, then providing advice and design solutions, will help readers to feel good about investing in businesses that put their interests first.