Finding our way in the landscape of books

Research sheds new light on why paper still has an edge over e-readers.

It's probably safe to predict that there will be a lot of e-reading capability wrapped up under Christmas trees this season.

Not just Kindles, tablets, and smart phones but probably even some high-end toaster ovens will make it possible to download new books with not much more effort than it used to take Grandpa to get out of his chair to change the channel on the TV.

And at a time of year when a lot of people have long flights ahead of them, it's a mercy to have in-flight reading available on a relatively lightweight device.

I remember my own first encounter, several years ago, with an e-reader: I received a Kindle as a Christmas present from my family. My clever nephew set me up, and just to have something to read, we grabbed a free download of "A Christmas Carol." After the rest of the family had gone to bed, I sat before the tree and read through Dickens's much-loved tale of redemption and second chances in one sitting. The device disappeared behind the story.

But it's not always like that with e-readers. "Paper books," any number of studies have found, still have an edge.

The debate over e-books versus print has crackled along like a holiday fire. Scientific American weighed in last month with a piece called "Why the Brain Prefers Paper."

Author Ferris Jabr, an associate editor at the magazine, reports pretty straightforwardly that people understand and remember text on paper better than on a screen. And that includes "digital natives," those who have grown up in a wired world.

A key reason for this is that when we read a text, particularly a long one, we make our way through it in a way not unlike the way in which we navigate through a landscape. "Much as we might recall that we passed the red farmhouse near the start of a hiking trail before we started climbing uphill through the forest, we remember that we read about Mr. Darcy rebuffing Elizabeth Bennett at a dance on the bottom left corner of the left-hand page in one of the earlier chapters of Jane Austen's 'Pride and Prejudice,' " Mr. Jabr writes.

The physical spaces of a book – its right-hand and left-hand pages, each with four corners to help pinpoint location – matter, it seems.

Another issue is the system feedback that lets you know where you are in a book. Yes, e-books have scrollbars. But they're nothing compared with the awareness of weight gradually shifting from the right side of a book to the left as you turn pages one by one. "An e-reader always weighs the same, regardless of whether you are reading Marcel Proust's magnum opus or one of Ernest Hemingway's short stories," Jabr writes.

He has a 50-cent term for this discombobulating sense of what-you-feel-isn't-necessarily-what-you-get: haptic dissonance. (Haptic means "related to the sense of touch.") It may not seem like a big deal, but it's enough to put some people off e-readers altogether, researchers find.

Moreover, paper seems to be better for a certain kind of in-depth engagement with a text, involving rereading, setting goals for a study session, and so on: metacognitive learning regulation, to use the term of art. Even young children at story time seem to grasp more of a tale read to them from a paper book than one from an e-reader.

This holiday season, let's give three cheers for the modest but enduring medium of paper.

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