Digital devices have given us beautiful and flexible ways to read and enjoy text and illustrations. When ebooks first arrived, they were heralded as marking the beginning of the end for print. Why would anyone choose fusty dusty books? seemed to be the view of glittery-eyed tech execs. And for a while, the glittery eyes seemed to have a point, though I and many other authors I know never believed it.
As recently as 2010, Christopher Mims, writing in MIT Tech Review, reported that “Changing reading habits brought about by the iPad, the Kindle and the tsunami of other tablet reading devices …. inspired Nicholas Negroponte, founder of MIT’s Media Lab and the father of the One Laptop per Child project, to declare earlier this month that the physical book is dead in 5 years.” He reports Negroponte as saying, “People will say ‘no, no, no’ – of course you like your libraries” but, referring to a report that sales of books for the Kindle recently surpassed sales of hardcover books, “It’s happening. It’s not happening in 10 years. It’s happening in 5 years.”
Now, in 2017, it’s pretty obvious that reports of the death of print have been greatly exaggerated. Sales of print books are up, driven by children’s books and (in my view) by physically beautiful fiction and non-fiction, and sales of ebooks are down, driven perhaps by the fact that ebook readers no longer feel trendy and desirable. Tech tarnishes. Part of its attraction is its newness and when that is lost, if the functionality doesn’t stand up, the product fails.
But ebook reading contains problems that go beyond whether the gadget looks cool. After all, we shouldn’t judge an ebook reader by its cover. The details of why print tends to beat digital in so many ways are of great interest to me. My first area of expertise was literacy acquisition and the psychology and process of learning to read, and I have an RSA Diploma in Specific Learning Difficulties (Dyslexia). The science (including neuroscience) of reading is one of “my” areas. Some might say obsessions.
So, I thought you might be interested in what we know or believe so far in terms of what’s going on when we keep returning to print – and why schools and libraries should not ditch it. (You’ll find references to lots of the research on my Resources page.)
Digital reading offers some practical advantages, such as being able to change the font, increase type size, look up words, carry a lot of books and disguise what we are reading.
However, for most people, probably in all age groups, there is a small (but sometimes significant) “advantage” to reading in print, in terms of comprehension, processing and recall. The growing number of studies mostly confirm these small advantages. (You’ll find links on my resources pages.)
Therefore, when you are reading something difficult or something you very much want to understand properly, it may be better to read it in print. Many people of all ages seem to sense this, often choosing to print things out when they need to concentrate on them. We should cater for this instinct.
Print is, for very many, and probably most, people, slightly (and sometimes significantly) easier to engage deeply in, to become carried away with. That state is important to wellbeing, state of mind and processing the text.
If you want to become fully engaged and if you find that difficult sometimes, again you could be better trying print than digital.
There is far less difference (if any) between digital natives and digital immigrants when it comes to reading preferences. Young people very often prefer print, too, especially after the novelty of ebooks has worn off.
BUT WHY DOES PRINT SEEM TO BE BETTER?
There are good reasons for these small advantages.
When we learn to read, because there is no brain area evolved for the purpose of reading, we “borrow” networks evolved for other things: touch, sight, space, proprioception and motor actions, as well as the more “intellectual” acts of language comprehension and word recognition. When we remove the physical book, with its thickness, left and right areas, marks, tactileness, kinaesethetic properties, smell, we lose the support of those connections. We are reading in a blinkered way, struggling to pick up the cues.
Digital usually contains distractions: competing (and sometimes moving) icons on the screen, notifications and hyperlinks, highlighted areas and the information that “187 other people highlighted this area”. It is hard to focus on one thing, especially nowadays when we are not used to it, and very easy to lose a little (or a lot) of concentration each time a hyperlink or notification appears.
When we take notes, we would usually be advised to do so with pen and paper (unless we have a writing difficulty or physical barrier). When we take notes by hand, we process the words we are hearing or reading, in order to turn them into a shortened form; most people who type, type faster and therefore often don’t process the meaning but rather copy it down automatically. They are likely to recall it less well.
However, research is ongoing. We can’t know about long-term effects of digital reading. Technology may improve to iron out its current deficits. And the studies that show a difference between print and digital comprehension usually only show a small difference.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR SCHOOLS, FAMILIES AND INDIVIDUALS?
Regardless of any research or science or stats about how many people like print or digital better, children should be allowed and encouraged to read whatever they feel comfortable with. If that’s digital, they should have that; if it’s print, they should have that.
We should each listen to our own mind and body: what feels better? Which do we prefer? And then we should realise that this tells us only about ourselves and not about anyone else. And that feelings are important. They are instincts and very often correct. Overall, the message is: do what feels better for you but be aware that there are times when you might well be better reading and writing on paper.
Schools and libraries should in no circumstances ditch print. It’s the crucial route to reading for many. Anecdote, instinct and research support this.
Publishers of teaching materials should not feel pressured into “going digital”: digital and print both have different important benefits. Each should be used for those activities suited to that medium. It’s too easy for us to go starry-eyed about digital, but young people are not: they want what does the job and feels most comfortable and sometimes that is print. Sometimes it’s not.
Publishers of “trade” books (the term given to books that are not for the educational market but are sold generally I bookshops) should take heart for the reinstatement of printed books as a much-loved and valuable medium. One of the reasons for this is, I believe, that publishers have made an effort to make books beautiful in a way that ebooks simply aren’t. I was thinking about this the other day when I held in my hands a copy of the Book of Dust.
Holding that book – or any other richly designed and simply gorgeous example – made me think that well-meaning and generous schemes to give a book to every child miss the point: that if the book is beautiful to hold and look at and run your fingers over, it feels valuable and desirable and permanent, and you’re going to be tempted to read it. Chocolate box manufacturers take time over the lid and design of the box because they know that a beautiful appearance makes people want to look inside. Whether we should or not, we do judge books, ebook readers, people and everything else by the cover – we can’t help it.
But for books, what the research is showing us, over and over again, is that even beyond the cover, for most people of all ages the contents are a little richer, a little brighter, a little tastier, and a little more accessible when the word is printed on paper that we can touch and absorb than when it floats before us on a screen and vanishes.
Don’t ditch print! Your brain loves it!