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.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to Finding our way in the landscape of books
Read this article in
https://www.csmonitor.com/The-Culture/Verbal-Energy/2013/1210/Finding-our-way-in-the-landscape-of-books
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today
https://www.csmonitor.com/subscribe