Submitted: The Two Sides Team May 2, 2014
In a world of screen ubiquity, many people still prefer to do their serious reading on paper.
Paper books were supposed to be dead by now. For years, information theorists, marketers, and early adopters have told us their demise was imminent. Ikea even redesigned a bookshelf to hold something other than books. Yet in a world of screen ubiquity, many people still prefer to do their serious reading on paper.
Count me among them. When I need to read deeply—when I want to lose myself in a story or an intellectual journey, when focus and comprehension are paramount—I still turn to paper. Something just feels fundamentally richer about reading on it. And researchers are starting to think there’s something to this feeling.
To those who see dead tree editions as successors to scrolls and clay tablets in history’s remainder bin, this might seem like literary Luddism. But I e-read often: when I need to copy text for research or don’t want to carry a small library with me. There’s something especially delicious about late-night sci-fi by the light of a Kindle Paperwhite.
What I’ve read on screen seems slippery, though. When I later recall it, the text is slightly translucent in my mind’s eye. It’s as if my brain better absorbs what’s presented on paper. Pixels just don’t seem to stick. And often I’ve found myself wondering, why might that be?
The usual explanation is that internet devices foster distraction, or that my late-thirty-something brain isn’t that of a true digital native, accustomed to screens since infancy. But I have the same feeling when I am reading a screen that’s not connected to the internet and Twitter or online Boggle can’t get in the way. And research finds that kids these days consistently prefer their textbooks in print rather than pixels. Whatever the answer, it’s not just about habit.
Another explanation, expressed in a recent Washington Post article on the decline of deep reading, blames a sweeping change in our lifestyles: We’re all so multitasked and attention-fragmented that our brains are losing the ability to focus on long, linear texts. I certainly feel this way, but if I don’t read deeply as often or easily as I used to, it does still happen. It just doesn’t happen on screen, and not even on devices designed specifically for that experience.
Maybe it’s time to start thinking of paper and screens another way: not as an old technology and its inevitable replacement, but as different and complementary interfaces, each stimulating particular modes of thinking. Maybe paper is a technology uniquely suited for imbibing novels and essays and complex narratives, just as screens are for browsing and scanning.
“Reading is human-technology interaction,” says literacy professor Anne Mangen of Norway’s University of Stavenger. “Perhaps the tactility and physical permanence of paper yields a different cognitive and emotional experience.” This is especially true, she says, for “reading that can’t be done in snippets, scanning here and there, but requires sustained attention.”
Mangen is among a small group of researchers who study how people read on different media. It’s a field that goes back several decades, but yields no easy conclusions. People tended to read slowly and somewhat inaccurately on early screens. The technology, particularly e-paper, has improved dramatically, to the point where speed and accuracy aren’t now problems, but deeper issues of memory and comprehension are not yet well-characterized.
Complicating the scientific story further, there are many types of reading. Most experiments involve short passages read by students in an academic setting, and for this sort of reading, some studies have found no obvious differences between screens and paper. Those don’t necessarily capture the dynamics of deep reading, though, and nobody’s yet run the sort of experiment, involving thousands of readers in real-world conditions who are tracked for years on a battery of cognitive and psychological measures, that might fully illuminate the matter.
In the meantime, other research does suggest possible differences. A 2004 study found that students more fully remembered what they’d read on paper. Those results were echoed by an experiment that looked specifically at e-books, and another by psychologist Erik Wästlund at Sweden’s Karlstad University, who found that students learned better when reading from paper.
Wästlund followed up that study with one designed to investigate screen reading dynamics in more detail. He presented students with a variety of on-screen document formats. The most influential factor, he found, was whether they could see pages in their entirety. When they had to scroll, their performance suffered.
According to Wästlund, scrolling had two impacts, the most basic being distraction. Even the slight effort required to drag a mouse or swipe a finger requires a small but significant investment of attention, one that’s higher than flipping a page. Text flowing up and down a page also disrupts a reader’s visual attention, forcing eyes to search for a new starting point and re-focus.
'Those dead trees still have a lot of life in them. '
Scrolling “took a lot of mental resources that could have been spent comprehending the text instead,” said Wästlund. Like being distracted when memorizing a phone number, scrolling’s interruptions knocked information from short-term memory. That’s the basic level of information processing, laying a foundation for long-term memories and knowledge.
To be sure, electronic reading has changed quite a bit since Wästlund’s experiments, which concluded in 2005. Many applications, such as Amazon’s Kindle software, have scrapped scrolling in favor of page-flipping emulations. Yet Mangen, who in a 2013 study of Norwegian teens found a deeper comprehension of texts on paper, and Wästlund say that e-readers may fail to capture a crucial, generally overlooked aspect of paper books: their physicality.
From this perspective, the feel of pages under one’s fingertips isn’t simply old-fashioned charm. It’s a rich source of information, subconsciously informing readers of their position in a text. Reading experts say that sense of position is important: It provides a sort of conceptual scaffold on which information and memory is automatically arranged, and the scaffold is strongest when built from both visual and tactile cues.
“All those cues like what the page looks like, what the book felt like, all those little pieces help you put together the whole thing,” said Marilyn Jager-Adams, a cognitive psychologist and literacy expert at Brown University. “And they are just impoverished on a Kindle or tablet”—though these devices can be improved.
Electronic interfaces do feature symbolic progress bars or percentage-remaining figures, but these are purely visual stimuli, rather than tactile. Pages also tend to be displayed individually rather than in pairs, further limiting spatial representation. And in a sense, e-readers and tablets really just consist of a single page that’s constantly being re-written. That immateriality could register differently than fixed texts.
Paper books also allow for different types of annotation: underlining and dog-earing and margin-scribbling, which for many people is integral to deep reading. Screen-reading software may allow annotations, but the process is far less tactile—and some researchers say tactility may be important. Studies have shown that close links exist between gesture and cognition. These links are little-studied in the context of reading, but are very much a part of writing, which similarly involves constructing mental models of text.
“Especially for those of us with lots of traditional book exposure, we use physical pages as anchors for deep comprehension,” said cognitive scientist Judith Thomson of Sheffield University. Thomson describes reading comprehension as having several levels: individual words and sentences, which should be equivalent on screen and paper, and ultimately the larger narrative structure they build.
Keeping that structure in mind allows for richer comprehension, weaving themes and threads of thoughts into insight, and for some people, this may be easier with paper. “E-paper takes away this comprehension prop to some degree,” Thomson said, “which I think could have subtle impacts for many people, at least until their reading system learns to adapt.”
Jager-Adams agrees: “I think until they solve those problems, there are a number of people who will find that reading longer, more complex texts is difficult on a Kindle or tablet.”
Other research points to additional differences. Rakefet Ackerman at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology has found that students reading on paper and screen may think differently about their own learning processes.
When reading on paper, Ackerman’s students seemed to have a better sense of their own understanding. When reading on screen, they thought they absorbed information readily, but tests showed otherwise. Screens seemed to foster overconfidence. With practice, this could be corrected, said Ackerman, but “the natural learning process on paper is more thorough than on screen.”
Ackerman also noted, however, that preference played an important role. When students preferred screen reading, they learned less when required to read from paper, and vice versa.
Much of this research jibes with my own experience, but the science is far from settled. A study by psychologist Sara Margolin of Brockport University found no difference in reading comprehension in students reading paper, computer screens and e-readers. “It’s really a matter of personal preference,” said Margolin.
Another study of students using paper and electronic textbooks found no significant differences—and for some readers, such as those with dyslexia who find it easier to concentrate on small sections of text, Thomson found that e-readers may already be superior to paper books. “I think as we have more and more ways to present digital text, we will see more of these ‘interactions’ where for one group of readers, we see an advantage, and for others we see the opposite,” said Thomson.
Many questions remain. If reading shorter texts on screen or paper is indeed a matter of preference, does the same hold for deep reading? Can interface designers find better workarounds for the physical limitations of screens? Will people eventually adapt, with screen-trained readers finding new ways of creating structures in the absence of tactile cues?
Jager-Adams thinks it’s possible that deep reading, at least for many people, may eventually prove to be intertwined with the physical form of paper books. If that’s true, it’s all the more reason to appreciate them.
“We should be wary of saying, ‘That’s the way we’re going to read in the future anyways, so why resist?’” said Mangen. “There is something to deep reading and deep thinking that is worth making an effort to preserve.” Whether we need paper to do that remains to be seen. For now, though, there’s still plenty of life in those dead trees.