Do We Really Get What We’re Reading?

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.

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About D. Thomas Minton

Writer of speculative fiction
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12 Responses to Do We Really Get What We’re Reading?

  1. ericjbaker says:

    I greatly prefer paper copies, though my eyesight, once 20/20, isn’t so good at picking up tiny print anymore. I may have to purchase an e-reader someday just for the luxury of magnifying the font.

    • I know people who have bought e-readers for that exact purpose. I may be one of them in the foreseeable future, too :-). But I really do like reading on paper. And editing? Wow, I cannot do that on a screen.

  2. Great post! I’ve been reading about learning, retention, etc. when it comes to digital vs. physical books as well. I think being able to piece together the author’s order and logic is also important when reading fiction, especially the more complex the work is: if the author is using subtle nuances to convey meaning behind the events of the story, or if it’s allegorical, philosophical, or literary fiction. Even when it comes to genre fiction or lighter works, I think better retention and all helps if readers are going to have meaningful book discussions or are going to write informed reviews.

    • All very good points, Nadine, and maybe “complex” fiction is better read in a paper book. The work on this stuf is just beginning, and I think many in the field would say it is far behind where it should be given the prevalence of e-reading now. I also wonder if there is an age affect: old fogies (I’m looking at me here, not you!) who grew up with paper books are worse with e-readers than those who are currently growing up with e-readers? Perhaps our brains are “wired” with whatever we start with in those early, formative years.

      • Oh, I’ve got old-fogish thinking sometimes, I suppose. I’ll take paper over ebooks about any day of the week. And I don’t have any children, but if I did, I’d be introducing them to reading with paper books from infancy. I certainly wouldn’t be putting a screen in front of my child’s face to read him/her a story. 🙂

      • Kids get a lot of electronic reading in school these days. My daughter (4th grade) probably spends an equal amount of time screen reading as she does paper book reading. For really little kids, however, paper is still the way to go I think; it’s more tactile. As school libraries and univeristy’s switch more to e-books in the future, it’ll be interesting to see what happens in this field.

  3. mobewan says:

    I’ve had an eReader since they came out and now do 95% of my reading on a tablet or smartphone. I’m a self confessed gadget freak, as are my kids,and they also do a lot of reading on devices. But, I’ve gone to great pains to ensure paper books have a strong place in their lives. We always read paper books at bed time as I’ve found it seems more of an ‘experience’ when you use an actual book. They both have bookshelves in their rooms, we have one in the lounge and my study is almost wall to wall books. Ironically I don’t tend to read actual books purely for the convenience factor – I’m away a lot and I read voraciously so it’s not practical. That said, when I go on holiday I always take a pile of actual books (much to the annoyance of my wife who obsesses over our luggage limit). Sitting down, reading with a real book, is like extreme relaxing for me 😉

    So I think there is a place for both formats. You just need to find those places in your lives.

    • I agree there’s place for both. I wonder what, exactly that place is. The work I’ve seen suggests e-readers are fine for fiction, but they may not be as effective for other things. As I said in an earlier comment, I wonder how many of these findings will depend on the age of the readers and what they were raised on. Just curious, have you ever noticed differing levels of comprehension in your kids based the platfrom from which they hear/read a story? That might be hard to pin down in hindsight, however.

  4. Laura says:

    This topic is really interesting to me. I have an e-reader and I read a lot on my computer. To my surprise I easily fall asleep reading a paper book or article even when I’m interested in it. But I tend to stay more alert reading off of an e-reader or my computer screen. I’m sure this has something to do with the light coming off the screen. I thought reading a screen would make my eyes more tired, but I haven’t experienced that yet.

    With regards to the comment about knowing how far through the book you are on an e-reader. My e-reader (iPad mini) gives me a page count and I usually refer to what page I’m on out of how many to gauge how far along I am in a ebook. Also, I really like the bookmarking and highlighting functions on the e-readers. It is great for note taking. And I especially like that I can tap a word and it will pronounce it and define it for me.

    I find that I use paper less and less and this makes having reading material much more portable. One exception to this is the magazine. It is very unfulfilling to look at an e-magazine. I find myself quickly flipping through and just looking at the images and not reading much. I would much rather have the paper version.

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