While e-books have yet to replace print books in terms of sales (and incidentally, growth in sales seems to have slowed in recent years), they are a fixture in the marketplace and not going anywhere. Some people love them and some people don’t.
Personally I’m in the jury-is-still-out category. I don’t have an e-book reader, so I haven’t had much opportunity to check them out and determine if I really like them or not. I can say that for scientific articles—of which I read many for my day job—I prefer to read them on paper over reading them electronically on my computer screen. I find the reading experience fundamentally different, especially in my retention of the material. I seem to grasp the information better when reading from paper.
This is interesting because a writing colleague, fellow Hopefull Monster D.J. Cockburn, pointed me to a recent article in the New Scientist that examined the reading experience between e-books and paper books (sorry, there’s no free link for this one, but you can see the first few paragraphs here). Somewhat to my surprise, their results matched my personal experience.
In general, studies have suggested that e-reading results in poorer comprehension, but this has been primarily attributed to distractions from being online—which reminds me, I should check my email; be right back . . . . . . . . In a more current study, however, people who read a mystery story on paper were nearly twice as good at putting plot events in the right sequence compared to those who read it as an e-book, suggesting there is something fundamentally different about reading on an e-reader vs. in a good old-fashion paper book.
The researches have suggested this may have to do with how we track where we are as we read. In a paper book, there are physical clues to help us, for example we can see when we are halfway through the book. With an e-reader, however, we don’t have that physical sense of how far through the book we have come: the amount of text on an e-reader “page” isn’t necessarily fixed, and the e-reader itself can give us no physical clues as to how much we’ve read. This sense of “place” in a book seems to provide important “signposts” that aid a reader’s comprehension of order.
But how important is all this? I guess that would depend. For reading scientific articles, these findings are important because the devils in the details, so to speak. Being able to assemble the order and logic of what the writer is presenting is critical and anything that makes that more challenging is a bad thing. When reading a piece of fiction, however, it’s likely not as critical, provided the reader can follow what’s happened in the story and can still relate emotionally to the characters and their plight. Incidentally, the same study described above found no difference in a reader’s emotional response to the story between those who read via an e-reader and a traditional paper book, so for fiction, it likely doesn’t matter.