Why you might want to ditch your e-reader and go back to printed books


(Tien Do/Flickr)

If you’re one of those Luddites who still clings, technophobically, to the printed page, then a team of European researchers has some good news for you:

You have again been vindicated.

This latest study on the differences between e-readers and printed books — which was presented at an Italian conference last month and reported this week in Britain’s Guardian newspapaer — asked 50 people to read a short story and take a comprehension test afterwards. Half the readers got the story on a Kindle; the other half got paperbacks; everybody got the same story. But when it came to the test, results diverged: The Kindle readers, it turned out, were far worse at remembering the story’s plot than were the print readers.

(Pew Research Center)
(Pew Research Center)

To be clear, this isn’t reason to chuck your Kindle (or Nook or iPad) forever. After all, the study only included 50 participants — and of the 50, only two were experienced Kindle-users. But regardless of those methodological quibbles, the results add to a growing pile of evidence on how new technology affects the way we read.

The short answer, for you distracted digital souls: It’s not good.

We already know, for instance, that people tend to comprehend less — and remember less — when they read books or textbooks on their computers or iPads, versus on a printed page.

On the open Web, it gets even more complicated. Readers here tend to skim around and look for keywords, rather than proceed linearly. In fact, according to eye-tracking research and Web analytics, the majority of the people who clicked onto this page will never make it to this sentence. (A Slate investigation into the issue last summer found that most readers scroll down to only 60 percent of an article page.)

That could port over to print reading too, neuroscientists worry: A number have documented, anecdotally and in their research, cases of readers who can no longer absorb classic literature or dense, complicated prose because of the habits they’ve developed on a screen. Those habits are, needless to say, spreading.

While the vast majority of Americans still read their books in print, that line is trending downward: A 2013 Pew report found that, from 2011 to 2012, the number of people who read e-books grew by seven percentage points — while the number of people who read printed books fell by five percentage points.

That trend is playing out in schools, as well: This September, 30,000 students in the Los Angeles Unified School District will begin their second year with personal, school-supplied iPads (… an initiative that cost the district $50 million). Elsewhere in the country, schools are handing out “educational tablets” and e-readers preloaded with learning software and digital textbooks.

“We don’t have people coming in, saying, ‘I can’t believe you took this textbook away from me. I can’t teach anymore,’ ” Patrick Larkin, the principal of an iPad-equipped school district, told Businessweek last year.

Teachers can still teach, sure — but it’s unclear whether students, or even much older readers, can still learn. Anne Mangen, the lead author of the new Kindle study, says more research will be needed to determine which devices should be used for what content and which populations benefit from each. It’s also unclear to what extent readers’ own attitudes affect their comprehension; one line of research posits that, as iPads and Kindles become more mainstream, people will approach text on those devices a little more thoughtfully.

In the immediate future, however, concerned readers have only one real option: turn off that Kindle and read more books in print. When all is said and read, that might not be a bad thing.

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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Caitlin Dewey · August 21