My husband and I raised three children. Like most parents, we read to our babies, practiced ABCs in preschool and struggled over phonics in kindergarten. Then one day, almost miraculously, we walked into the kitchen to hear them stringing together short words — they were reading.
I’m amazed how kids manage to take in ink smudges and convert them into meaningful stories. But add technology to the mix — babies swiping smartphones and toddlers playing with iPads — and the process becomes even more confusing. Is it safe for kids to read on these devices?
We have instinctive, even strident views about whether print or e-books is better. Purists defend the enjoyment of the bound book, while technophiles tout the convenience of digital. But what if the best of both could be merged into one pleasurable and convenient format?
In 2007, Amazon introduced the Kindle. Two years later, during the Christmas shopping season, the company boasted its e-reader had broken records to become its “most gifted item” ever. Soon, e-book sales surpassed physical books, prompting many to foreshadow the demise of the print, relegating it as a relic of a bygone, analog age.
“The publishing industry has been doomed for as long as I’ve been in the publishing industry, which is 25 years — it’s an industry that’s been in perpetual crisis,” Niko Pfund, president of Oxford University Press, told Bloomberg. “It has been an evolutionary process and we are moving more and more to a digital model.”
In 2012, e-book sales, especially in the romance genre, gave publishers a lift, making up 20 percent of their revenues, up from 15 percent in 2011. According to the New York Times, in total, publishers pulled in $15 billion in revenue, up from $14 billion a year ago.
But don’t count paper out, and not just because nostalgia — the smell of the paper, the autograph of the author or knowing you’ve shared the same book with others — motivates us to cling to them. Paper, it seems, has distinct cognitive advantages, too.
One reason paper is still appealing — beyond being tangible, often beautiful physical objects — lies in the neurological complexity of reading. We often think reading is a simple mental task, but it’s actually very demanding on the brain. According to the New York Times, Keith Oatley, a professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto, believes that reading produces a vivid simulation of reality, one that “runs on minds of readers just as computer simulations run on computers.” And, it turns out, paper makes reading easier.
Reading is a relatively modern phenomenon, so it doesn’t have its own dedicated brain section, like seeing or hearing. “Unlike its component parts such as vision and speech, reading has no direct genetic program passing it on to future generations,” Maryanne Wolf, a cognitive neuroscientist and child development expert at Tufts University, wrote in her book, “Proust and the Squid.”
Our brains develop circuits to link various sections for visual recognition, language and motor coordination. Reading looks simple, but it’s anything but.
Researchers at Cardiff University found that when you browse a book, areas of the brain begin to collect information to build a “map” of meaning. Using clues from paper, your brain fills in that meaning-map seamlessly and intuitively, starting with its obvious physicality of the book.
You hold it all — the beginning, middle and end of the book — in your hands to quickly check where in relation to the story’s trajectory you are at any given point. The size and weight of the book tells your brain how dense or difficult the text may be, and cover illustrations and jacket summaries reference what may lie ahead.
That ability to navigate also helps you remember the story. In fact, neuroscientist Mark Changizi explains in his blog that “in nature, information comes with a physical address (and often a temporal one), and one can navigate to and from the address.”
Just like we remember those raspberry patches we stumbled upon last year, we also use a book’s physical landscape to recall a particularly moving passage or the description of a favorite character’s death in relation.
In other words, our brain remembers reference points, such as whether it’s at the top, middle or bottom of the page, or if it’s next to a corresponding picture. So, when we read books, our minds are essentially creating mental bookmarks to cue and recall information. As anyone that has monotonously scrolled through an e-book knows, it’s much harder to do with a digital device.
“Anyone who has read an e-book can attest that the page provides fewer spatial landmarks than print,” Changizi wrote about the screen experience. “In a sense, the page is scrolled without incident, infinite and limitless, which can be dizzying.”
Readers seem to intuitively grasp the relationship between physicality and memory, and when they need to read for clarity or engagement, they often prefer paper. According to a National Taiwan University survey, graduate students preferred the keyword search function of e-books, but most of the time, they browsed a few paragraphs online before printing out the entire text for in-depth reading. They also borrowed the corresponding paper versions of the e-books from the library.
According to Salve Regina University in Rhode Island, when it comes to reading a book, even millennials, or those born between 1980 and the early 2000s, prefer good, old-fashioned print.
Paper has its critics too, who point to the weight and cost of bound books, which makes them cumbersome, especially to students. Environmentalists often argue that print, and the reams of paper it depends on, damages the ecosystem. But even that issue isn’t cut and dried. Others contend that the carbon footprint of the gadgets themselves — not to mention their batteries — wipes away environmental gains.
To these critics, e-books are the answer. For one, they’re portable: one tablet is smaller than a piece of paper, weighs less than a pound or two and holds as many e-books as there is memory for. Readers can also do more with them — search for keywords, record notes, explore hyperlinks, enjoy interactive content and graphics and, in the case of some study materials, take self-tests at the end of each chapter.
And advancements in e-ink technology, along with better lighting and contrast on high-end devices, continue to challenge the conventional wisdom that reading on a display is less comfortable than on paper.
In fact, older readers may find e-screen easier on their eyes, according to researchers from Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany. They found that participants over the age of 60 spent more time and effort reading from the printed page than from the digital screen, suggesting the elderly may benefit from the increased contrast from backlit devices.
By tracking eye movements and brain activity of readers across different ages, researchers concluded that there was no difference between younger and middle-aged readers, regardless of whether they read the material on a tablet, e-reader or printed page. But the best results across all age groups, they noted, came when participants read from tablets.
There is a big downside to e-readers, though: the potential for distraction. Interactive features like hyperlinks add to our comprehension, but others, like blinking and flashing advertisements, distract from the experience.
For each person who prefers e-books with multimedia — like related video clips, music and supplemental links — others argue embedded features make e-books feel like a gimmick.
“Would the ‘Great Gatsby’ be a better novel if the e-book played jazz music while I was reading it?” Peter Hudson, founder of BitLit, asked me rhetorically by phone. “Multimedia interaction might be helpful in technical and medical e-books, but not for narrative fiction.”
Of course, digital and print doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition, and entrepreneurs like Hudson are looking to bridge the gap with apps.
“My feeling is one doesn’t have to exist at the expense of another,” he said, pointing that there’s room for both e-books and books. With BitLit, you simply take a picture of a book you own and then it checks if it’s one of a select number of titles available for a free or discounted electronic download. If it is, just write your name in pen on a copyright page to verify.
“Originally, I was with a friend who was bemoaning the fact that he couldn’t format shift his book collection,” Hudson said. “The app is a legitimate way for people who bought content in one medium and would like to access it in a format they find convenient.”
Bundling digital with print isn’t a new idea, but encouraging publishers to sell a discounted e-book to those that already bought a hard copy is a novel twist. Because let’s face it: there are trendy and sometimes trashy books to read on your Kindle, gift books you want to display like works of art, and classics and favorites to keep in your permanent collection on the bookshelf at home.
Now, you can have different formats for different reasons.
But beyond having both, device makers and publishers are taking ideas from one another. Innovators continue to tinker with technology that blurs the lines of electronic and printed text.
In fact, flexible screens — so thin you can crease, fold and roll them — from Samsung, Sony and LG are creating a buzz, especially after LG unveiled a malleable, high-resolution display that can bend at an angle of up to 40 degrees. At just 0.7-millimeters thick and 14 grams, it’s one-third thinner and half the weight as comparable glass displays.
E-books are also taking a page from print to include enhanced annotations and the ability to turn pages. But there is potential for more.
Push Pop Press, a platform that helps publishers create interactive e-books, which was acquired by Facebook, turns e-books into the feeling of watching a movie.
“Anything you see in the book, you can pick up with two fingers and lift off the page and open up,” Mike Matas, co-founder of Push Pop Press, said at Ted. “Throughout the book, there’s over an hour of documentary footage in the interactive animations.”
In the end, though, if you love to read, the e-book versus paper debate is really a false dichotomy. Most formats are better suited for one or the other, but with both taking notes from each other, you’ll get the best of both in the quest to build a well-stocked library for the 21st century. ♦