I Still Prefer Books (And Science Agrees With Me)

There’s probably something odd in blogging about the superiority of the physical page as compared to the digital screen. I don’t particularly love eBooks; as I have enumerated before, I don’t own a tablet or eReader of any sort so my experience is limited to reading on my smartphone. And that’s not terribly enjoyable.

Overall, I’d estimate that out of the 125 books I read last year, about 100 of them were physical, 20 were audio, and the remaining five were electronic text.

Fortunately for me, science suggests that from a neurological perspective, this is the preferred way to read:

The debate between paper books and e-readers has been vicious since the first Kindle came out in 2007 . . . But now science has weighed in, and the studies are on the side of paper books . . . A 2014 study found that readers of a short mystery story on a Kindle were significantly worse at remembering the order of events than those who read the same story in paperback. Lead researcher Anne Mangen of Norway’s Stavanger University concluded that “the haptic and tactile feedback of a Kindle does not provide the same support for mental reconstruction of a story as a print pocket book does.”

My own experiences support this. I recently finished Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon and I read it entirely on my smartphone. I noticed one particular advantage: my book was always in my pocket which otherwise wouldn’t be possible given that Cryptonomicon, like almost everything Stephenson writes, is around 1,000 pages. I was able to read pretty much everywhere I went which really helped rack up some extra reading time throughout the day.

But I can tell that I didn’t absorb it as fully as if I’d been reading a physical version. It’s easier to skim on a screen. You scroll through the text and “psuedo-read” what’s there, seeing without comprehending.

As we increasingly read on screens, our reading habits have adapted to skim text rather than really absorb the meaning. A 2006 study found that people read on screens in an “F” pattern, reading the entire top line but then only scanning through the text along the left side of the page. This sort of nonlinear reading reduces comprehension and actually makes it more difficult to focus the next time you sit down with a longer piece of text.

I noticed the “F pattern” creep into my reading experience. It certainly didn’t help my comprehension, even if it did improve the speed at which I plowed through the book (but since I’m reading for my own pleasure, what’s the point of going so quickly that you don’t realize what you’re doing?)

I also noticed that the “F pattern” effect began to recede as soon as I returned to a physical book. My focus was much sharper.

I have another mammoth Stephenson tome sitting in my “to-read” pile (Anathem, if you’re curious) and it will be interesting to see how the experience compares; two very long works by the same author on the different formats.

Textual Preferences

I don’t own an e-reader but I do indulge in reading e-books on my smartphone from time to time. I use the word indulge which might suggest that ebooks are a treat that I allow myself from time to time but that isn’t quite the case. Usually, I’ll choose an e-book when the printed copy isn’t available. Or I need something immediately such as during travel.

Otherwise, reading on my smartphone is an uncomfortable experience. The phone’s screen is too cramped and claustrophobic. My phone is three years old, so prolonged use of any sort wears out the battery too quickly.

It creates a tricky situation. I don’t like reading ebooks enough to invest in a dedicated ereader but reading on my phone is too uncomfortable to induce me to read more ebooks, so why should I spend money on a reader?

However, there is one case when I feel the e-book has a clear advantage, even on an uncomfortable platform like a smartphone: when one is reading a doorstopper.

The current doorstopper in my reading queue is Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson. I tried reading a few years ago but I couldn’t get into the book. I knew that it wasn’t a bad book. It just wasn’t the right time or place or maybe I wasn’t in the right mental state for it. I always knew that I’d come back to it someday and so, a few years later, here I am.

I’m trying it as an e-book so that I don’t have to heft around a massive slab of book which is a bonus when you’re a motorcycle rider and your reading material needs to fit easily into one’s jacket pocket.

Since this is my first really deep delve into reading an e-book, I’m learning some of the quirks. One of which is that I can control the color of the text on the screen. I can choose to have black text on a white background (like this blog page) or I can have the inverse; white text on a black background.

I’ve tried it both ways for about one hundred pages now and I’m uncertain. My general feeling is that the white-text-on-black would probably be better for my battery life but which one is better for my eyes?

A few Google searches suggest that black-text-on-white is more readable which would reduce eyestrain, but there are also countless articles about computer-related eyestrain that make me suspicious of the black-text-on-white paradigm. Might the inverse option be better for the eyes? I am uncertain and there doesn’t seem to be much discussion on this pressing topic to provide me with more information.