Thursday, October 30, 2014

To e- or not to e-? That is the question.

I buy e-books, but I prefer to buy real books. 

I buy e-books because I travel a lot and, since I read quickly, I can finish three or four books on a trip to Europe from Minneapolis.  In my youth I regarded the lugging of all these real books as part of my exercise regimen. Now I regard it as an unnecessary schlep.



Because I want to keep up with what is happening in Minneapolis during the months I live in Cape Town, I also subscribe to the Minneapolis Star Tribune electronically; similarly I subscribe to South Africa’s Mail & Guardian for the other half of my life.

I don’t mind reading books electronically, but I dislike intensely reading newspapers online.  I don’t have the same sense of perspective that I have with big pages open in front of me, where I take in articles, headlines, adverts, and so on.  Reading a newspaper electronically is like walking through a museum at night with a small flashlight.  One only sees bits and pieces, and is left with no sense of the whole.

The only thing that I really don’t like about e-books is that it is much more difficult for me to walk into a house and snoop through the owner’s library.  If the books are on shelves, I know what the owner is reading.  If they are in an e-reader, I have no sense at all of the person’s taste. 

I’ve often wondered why I have such a strong preference for real books. 

Is it because of habit – that’s the way I’ve always done it and I’m slow to change?  Is it because I like to see books scattered around my house, tempting me to sit down and read them?  Is it because I like the feel of having a book in my hand?

It is probably a bit of all of these.  But there is now evidence that there may be something more at play.

Recent research done at Stavanger University in Norway suggests that you remember more when reading a real book compared to an e-book.  Anne Mangen gave 50 readers the same 28-page short story by Elizabeth George.  Half read the story in a paperback; half on an e-reader.  She then tested them about different aspects of the story – objects, characters, and setting.

On most items there was little or no difference, but when the readers had to place 14 events that happened in the story in the correct order, the paperback readers performed significantly better. 

When I read this, I thought of how I feel about electronic newspapers – that I lose the big picture – and wondered whether something similar was going on.

Mangen suggested a reason for this: “When you read on paper you can sense with your fingers a pile of pages on the left growing, and shrinking on the right.  You have the tactile sense of progress, in addition to the visual.”

What she is say, in fact, that you have a sensory experience as you read a real book as well as an intellectual one. The researchers postulate that this gives readers a better sense of the story.

This study was similar to another Norwegian one, where 72 tenth graders were given texts to read in print or in a PDF on a computer, followed by a comprehension test.  Students who read the texts on paper scored significantly better.

As an ex-researcher myself, I can see a hundred more studies that need to be done.  But these findings are both interesting and important.  Particularly as more and more students read only on their e-readers.

So, what are your opinions about e-readers and e-books versus real books?  Which do you prefer?  And Why?

Stan - Thursday


  1. There is no doubt (in my mind, and that's the only that matters, don't you know?) that reading a physical book has ...uh... physical advantages :-). As you say, there's the physical sense of where you are in the book based upon the pages to your left or right. It's also WAY easier to search for things (like maps or other content at the front of the book or elsewhere, the one thing I miss most about e-reading).

    That said, e-books also have their advantages. It's a matter of what you're willing to trade for what you want to have.

    Myself, I'm a confirmed e-reader. I've been collecting books since I was ...maybe 10?... and have thousands of them staring at me right now, shelved, stacked, threatening to end my life at any moment. But I REALLY like being able to read my current book on either a tablet at home or my smartphone when waiting somewhere else, and either way it's MUCH lighter and easier to hold than a hardcover (my physical book preference) or even a paperback (which you're always fighting to keep open to the right place). Plus, as you mentioned, I've got a dozen books with me at all times, in case of the zombie apocalypse. The two things I miss the most: easy search to find maps, tables, etc, without losing my place (a software problem, easily solved if the programmers paid attention) and knowing when I'm getting close to the end of the book (a formatting problem caused by publishers putting "sneak peek" chapters and such at the end of the book, so the "percent done" has no real bearing on reality). Those are all very solvable problems, and if I were younger and more energetic, I'd write my own e-book reader program that would solve all of those irritations and more. Alas, alack.

    1. Just saw this article on CNet about Google's updated e-book reader app, which makes bookmarks and "flipping through a book" much better:

      I've been using the Kindle app primarily, but I might have to give this a go.

  2. That is very interesting. I have gravitated more to my Kindle and away from paper pages, but I have often wondered where I am in an e-book. If I really must know I can poke the bottom of the screen and find my percentage read. That, however, interrupts the reading process. The tactile method with a printed book is always ongoing.

    The other issue for me is that if I want to read a book as soon as it comes out I can't. Unless I get it in printed form. For example, I want to read Yrsa's book Someone To Watch Over Me which won't be out until February in hardbound form and I really don't want to wait until it comes to Kindle (who knows when that will be). It is available in paperback now so I will get it soon.

    Since I live in a relatively remote area availability of newspapers is quite limited. I have to read them online, but still prefer the large pages of a real newspaper just as you do.

  3. I far prefer paper, but as you, I can't get (or lug) the books I want in Greece. That makes the Kindle (or other reader) a necessity...for before that I used to spend several hundred dollars each year in just shipping charges getting books back and forth cross the Atlantic.

    I do though feel pestered by that % at the end of bottom of the page...when will it move...and if you're reading from an anthology---of say Mark Twain's works--the darn thing never moves. That's the only real rub I have with the Kindle...and that I can't rub up against the pages.

  4. Stan, My attitudes match yours almost exactly, except when it comes to newspapers. I stopped reading the paper during the Regan administration. I found myself either grumbling or shouting at the paper in anger and disbelief or putting my hands to my face in horror and getting printer's ink all over myself. Now I get my news from the radio. I can listen to WNYC on line wherever I am in the world. I still shout and grumble, but at least it doesn't stain my fingers.

  5. What a fascinating post. To be honest, I have no doubt the research is accurate...and yet it is somewhat pointless. Meaning only that changes in our society are driven overwhelmingly by what is more convenient, it seems, not by what is better.

    Who would argue against the idea that having fresh milk delivered on one's front porch once or twice a week is better than driving to a store to get it? I recall when it being delivered was commonplace in America but no more.

    I feel sure the convenience provided by eReaders will eclipse the better reading experience provided by tangible books, alas.