You know I like books. I mean books, real books, those things made of paper and ink. A well-made book is a treasure, not to mention a marvel of low-level technology and, while I have an e-reader, read the occasional novel on my e-reader, and while I was one of the earliest adopters of the technology (I owned a first-generation REB1000, back in the ’90s), I do not like them.
I like books.
I like the heft, the feel, the fixity of the thing. I cannot turn it off. I cannot download it. I cannot erase it.
A book is a quiet, confident thing. It does not shout or wheedle. It rests, waits, and says, “Read me, or read me not; your choice.” It simply is.
I like reading from a physical book more than reading off my Kindle. When I read from a book I get more involved, I experience a greater immersion in the words and the story.
And I am not alone. Science, it turns out, is right there with me.
Norway’s Stavanger University recently published the results of their study, in which they gave a group of readers the same short story to read and tested them afterward on their retention and comprehension of what they had just read. Half of the participants were given the short story in paperback form, while the other half read the story on a Kindle.
The Kindle readers performed “significantly” worse on the test.
Other studies have returned similar results when comparing print to digital formats. Readers who read from printed material–books–score higher in several areas including empathy, an item I find particularly interesting.
Reading from a digital format is rife with distractions. Backlit e-readers shine light into our eyes, hyperlinks break the flow of the words, paragraphs reformat themselves when the layout swaps, and pages don’t always turn when you “turn” them. Reading is hard enough without all these distractions; our brains were not designed for reading, and we carry no genes for reading as we do for language and vision. Reading, by its very nature, is self-distracting: it engages the imagination and our inner vision, and we populate our mindscape with characters and settings using the author’s words. The digital format only adds noise to the signal.
A book, as I said, is quiet. Its words do not move. As you read, as you move physically through the book, your brain knows how far you’ve read. Your hands know just about where Chapter Two is, and recalls what happened on those pages. Your fingers transmit the haptic sensation of turning the pages, dog-earing corners, and you remember more vividly where you are in the story and what has transpired on the pages you have so far read. More to the point, this quietude actually enhances your ability to immerse yourself in the story, allowing you to identify more deeply with the characters, and hence to empathize with them.
Reading from a book, therefore, is a more human experience, a more emotionally involved experience, than reading from an electronic device.
Our digital reading habits are much different. A 2006 study found that we don’t read as slowly or as thoroughly from a digital medium as we do in print. Instead, we read in an “F”-shaped pattern: We read the entire first line, then part of the second, then skim down the left margin looking for interesting words, some of which pull us a bit farther across the page, and so on. In fact, you’re probably not even reading this line.
Of course, reading from an e-reader is better than not reading at all, that has also been proven by scientific study. Reading is crucial to retaining the elasticity of our brains, reduces the risks and severity of dementia, and is a proven method for reducing stress. All in all, I’d much prefer to see people reading on their iPhone than watching a video of cute kittens but, understanding the extra advantages that a physical book provides, I think we should consider the medium before we click “Add to Cart.”
- Arts.Mic: Science Has Great News for People Who Read Actual Books
- Washington Post: Serious reading takes a hit from online scanning and skimming
- Wall Street Journal: Read Slowly to Benefit Your Brain and Cut Stress
- The Guardian: Readers absorb less on Kindles than on paper