Book sales, frumpy readers, and mental rotation of book titles

By Grant Jacobs 27/05/2010

Last Friday I attended the 30th annual 24-hour book sale at the Regent Theatre, Dunedin, held to raise funds to maintain that glorious old place, all red seating with the lolly-decorated proscenium arch and pillars of an older era. Books are donated, collected and sorted by volunteers and ’sold’ to the punters.

(Source: Wikimedia Commons. Slightly pixelated on reduction.)

It starts at noon Friday and proceeds through the night until noon Saturday with live entertainment on the stage.

The aisles of the stalls are bordered by table tops placed on top of the seats on which books are placed, three rows deep. The stage and orchestra’s pit have more tables of books. Centre fore stage is left free for the entertainment. Upstairs from the foyer are more books again.

Sections are divided by topic. Upstairs has special interests, stage right nearly new fiction, divided further into paperback, hardback and science fiction. Centre stage are the New Zealand books. The aisles are lined with unpriced fiction, $NZ1 per book. Further sections cater for travel, biography, textbooks, religion, puzzles, humour, children’s works… in all there were around 300,000 books in the sale.*

Hundreds of people jam into the place, shuffling past rows of books, until the tiny hours of the morning when things ease off a little. Rumour has it, this is the time for the dedicated to go as they hold a few of the better titles back. In the last few hours there is even more chaos as people pour in to scour for last-minute bargains when they halve the price of the books left.

(Source: Wikimedia Commons.)
(Source: Wikimedia Commons.)

Most people shuffle along in patient, orderly fashion. A slow conga of bowed heads scanning books. I’m always struck by how little people look at each other in the sales. The larger scene would be a social disaster in some ways but for knots of conversation here and there as friends bump into each other.

Always, every year, there are those few individuals that insist on scanning the books the opposite way, against the grain. I witnessed the silliest of arguments between two younger women about which was the ’right’ way to go around the nearly new fiction tables.

Is there a right way to scan rows of books?

Left or right?

Science abhors anecdote, except perhaps as the basis of a new hypothesis. A more quantitative answer might relate to what is easier on the brain: reading text rotated to the right or rotated to the left? There is also the extent that the writing is rotated, but I was more curious about left or right rotation as that might resolve our dilemma as which way the punters ought to be walking past the rows.

(Source: Wikimedia Commons.)
(Source: Wikimedia Commons.)

What I was thinking about is something known as mental rotation.

When you compare two objects that are at different orientations, your mind rotates them internally to make the comparison. If one object is increasingly rotated with respect to the other, it takes an increasing amount of time to be ’re-oriented’ internally. It’s a famous finding by Shepard and Metzler that’s nearly fourty years old that sparked many follow-on studies.

I was thinking that letters and words are objects we have an internal ’image’ of; that the awkwardly angled title on the spine of a book wants to be rotated to be mapped to so that we might recognise the words.

Mental rotation studies are often applied to three-dimensional objects; what about text?

Like a lot of things in life, there are a lot nuances to reading rotated text.

There’s historic antecedent. According to those interested in all things typographic, in Europe text written ’sideways’ on the spine usually rises from the base to the top. In the USA, and New Zealand, it falls. These may not have much to do with what makes for easiest reading, but historical pretexts, which I’ll leave for the typographical experts and historians of document design.

There’s the biology of reading words, which involves many aspects pattern matching, the size and complexity of the particular words, training effects, what brain systems are used, and so on, resulting in complex studies that try to tease out the contributions these different factors make.

Easier for our purposes is a more informal study** by carried out by Michael Byrne’s students who tested the ease American readers were able to read words written horizontally, rotated 90˚ to the right, rotated 90˚ to the left, or presented in marquee style with each letter stacked below it’s predecessor.

In addition to word presentation, they considered the nature of the words; if they were common words that might be more readily recognised, or less common. Previous research had shown that as words are rotated past 60˚ we increasingly ’scan’ the words in smaller chunks, an effect that is compensated to some extent by the commonality of the word. We can more easily scan common words at odd angles than words we are less familiar with.

Byrne’s class tested 72 volunteers (’primarily friends and family of undergraduate students enrolled in a psychology research methods course’), measuring the time it took the volunteers to read aloud the words whilst keeping their heads upright.

Their results found horizontal text easier to read than rotated text, which, in turn, was easier to read than marquee-style text. In all cases, common words were easier to read than rarer words in any particular orientation.

Important for solving our book-row scanning question, they observed no difference in ease of reading left- or right-rotated text.

Readers took just as long to read words rotated 90Ëš to the left as comparably common words rotated 90˚ to the right. (Their paper is available on-line (PDF file) for those who’d like to read further.)

(From Fig 1, Byrne 2002.)
(From Fig 1, Byrne 2002.)

So, if you are facing the books at 90˚, shuffling sideways, either direction of shuffling past the books should be equally valid.

Equality rules?


What breaks it, of course, is facing to the right or left rather than shuffling sideways, as browsers walking past books whose titles ’fall’ down the spines (like those in the top row of books in the photograph above) can read the titles with a lesser rotation if they turn to the right. Walking forwards, this should favour left-to-right.

A few people proceeding from right to left walked backwards.

In a crowded space walking backwards generally isn’t very helpful.

One particularly silly sod progressed entirely backwards, without even bothering to look over his shoulder, simply asserting his ’right’ to walk that way with whoever he bumped into.

Whatever. (There must be some deep psychology to that behaviour…)

So… what did I score? I won’t bore you with a full list, but prizes for the evening included Elizabeth Moon’s speed of dark, which I previously noted in the LabLit List because it’s protagonist is, like me, a bioinformatics scientist. Seeing it, I thought ‘oh hell, I have to buy that now.’ I’ll be it’s worst critic.

I snaffled a copy of Brian Silver’s The Ascent of Science, Asimov’s The Exploration of Space (the 1950s illustrations appealed) and Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, which for some reason I haven’t read. And far too many others.

This is not Aimee – I don’t have digital camera – but this is exactly the sort of thing I mean. Source: Heart-at-home blog.)
This is not Aimee – I don’t have digital camera – but this is exactly the sort of thing I mean. Source: Heart-at-home blog.)

Even the cat got a treat.

When you pay for the books they are wrapped in newspapers donated by The Otago Daily Times sealed with very sticky ‘sold’ tape.

My cat, Aimee, (no relation to my fellow sciblogger) loves paper. She crawls under paper sheets and sits there, head to the floor peering out at the world. She chases or attacks any paper that moves. Turning pages while reading in bed with her in my lap can be tricky negotiation. Her eyes follow the page I turn; I carefully watch her, wary of an assault on the book.

Opening one end of my book packages and sliding the books out on the living room floor, the paper rested as bags on the floor.

Aimee promptly investigated.

Sitting inside a paper bag is exciting it seems.

Beats the hell out of running into people scanning the books in the opposite direction to everyone one else.


* For perspective, Dunedin has a population of about 124,000. When the university students are in town, they account for about 20% of the population.

** I’m not suggesting this informal study is the last word on this subject. I chose it because it is more accessible as it doesn’t get tied up in the more complex issues that come with this subject. This is, of course, also a weakness of the work.

*** Yes, I know this make the whole argument trivial, but it’s an excuse for ruminating, right?

(Added later.) Oh rats. I was going to write something about the larger bodies and, erm, down-to-earth dress sense or browsers, hence the ‘frumpy’ in the title. This didn’t make it into the final cut, but I never revised the title to match… Oh, well. If I sneakily changed the ‘f’ into a ‘g’ we’d have grumpy, which would at least suit the story better but seeing as it’s live already I’ll let the title stand. Sorry about that, folks.

While researching this, I ran into this (intentionally?) humorous research title:

Attending to a misoriented word causes the eyeball to rotate in the head.

Psychon Bull Rev. 2006 Dec;13(6):954-7. Pashler H, Ramachandran VS, Becker MW.


Shepard, R., & Metzler, J. (1971). Mental Rotation of Three-Dimensional Objects Science, 171 (3972), 701-703 DOI: 10.1126/science.171.3972.701

Koriat, A., & Norman, J. (1985). Reading rotated words. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 11 (4), 490-508 DOI: 10.1037//0096-1523.11.4.490

Michael D. Byrne (2002). Reading vertical text: rotated vs. marquee Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society 46th Annual Meeting, 1633-1635 (PDF copy of paper)

For a casual perspective on the typographical issues, try Vertical text, reading up or down? or this discussion.

Other articles on Code for life:

Synthetic genome in living cell round-up: the good, the bad and the ugly

Testing common ancestry to all modern-day life

More science in literature done right

Aww, crap.

Writing a popular science book; links and writers’ warnings

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