Sunday 17 December 2017

Reading: paper or digital?

Sales of e-reading devices have begun to decline as book sales increase.
Sales of e-reading devices have begun to decline as book sales increase.

Patricia Casey

Travelling on the London Underground is a fascinating exercise in studying social trends. Fewer travellers now read books or newspapers. Once, these provided the excuse to avoid eye contact with the masses (I saw a young man reading a music score upside down once), but commuters now seem to be finding other tactics.

Playing with the ubiquitous mobile is a universal defence for gaze avoidance. During a business trip to London last week, I was curious to see if the people near me, clinging to the Tube strap and swaying to the turns of the train between Strand and Bayswater at 5pm, were scrolling through texts or engaging in something more interesting.

My neighbour on the right was reading Finnegans Wake! On the other side of me, a person was reading Matt cartoons. I was the only one in this temporary coalescence of humanity, trying to simultaneously hold and read a book.

What was their likely experience of this reading exercise, I asked myself? And this is what researchers are now asking too.

Those of us who read paper copy rather than e-books may appear to be Luddites since the received wisdom is that e-reading is the future. But our hour may have come, again, if the opinion of Tim Waterstone, the man who revolutionised the bookshop experience, is to be believed.

He told the 2014 Oxford Literary Festival that the sales of e-reading devices have begun to decline (although that may be due to market saturation), while there has been an increase in book sales again.

A large chunk of my academic work is spent correcting what I've written, or reviewing and evaluating what others have written in scientific papers and books. And for that type of exercise, I unquestionably opt for print, as it allows me to scribble in the margins and to move back and forth in a scientific paper between, say, the results and the discussion parts of the paper with the flick of a thumb.

Perhaps I'm just too rigid or too lazy to adapt to this new technology, but the flexibility afforded by paper reading is without question.

Those who, like me, prefer paper have had to rely on anecdote or personal preference to justify their position. Digital reading (also called 'soft copy') hurts your eyes, the battery runs out, they are simply a no-no in the bath and they're not tactile enough.

Books also smell, and that olfactory sensation is lost with digital reading devices. Meanwhile, the experience of no longer being surrounded by dog-eared books creates an existential vacuum.

To date, there has been little research into what type of device, whether iPad, Kindle or paper, facilitates readers and for what type of genre.

Recently, a number of investigators have turned their attention to some of these concerns. One of these is Naomi Baron, at American University in Washington DC and author of Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World. She is an expert on digital behaviours and has found that readers skim screens, while with paper, they read more slowly and they preferred this luxury.

She has found that reading books allows the reader to create a physical map - you can remember where a piece of important text was located. So, when names of characters are similar, you can check back and forth to the early pages to decipher who was who.

A further problem she identified was that when people, especially students, are online and reading, there are multiple distractions as there are pings from emails and other notifications that break their concentration. Others, she found, rewarded their reading of a few paragraphs with minimising the screen and going on Facebook or some other social medium.

A study by Anna Mange from Stavanger University, Norway, compared the emotional response to reading an upsetting story on paper or on iPad and found that the group reading it on paper scored higher on measures of empathy and immersion in the story.

In addition, the paper readers were better at recalling the sequence of events in the story. This may be because when reading a book, you have a tactile sense of the progress of the story because you can feel the growing bulk of pages with your left hand and the shrinking one with your right.

In another study, she gave over 70 Norwegian 10th graders texts to read from paper or on pdf on a computer screen and she found that students who read the text on paper scored significantly higher than those reading digitally.

This is a fascinating and developing field and there is no definitive answer as to the benefit or drawbacks of print over pad reading.

So far, we Luddites are again ascendant, but as research in this area becomes more sophisticated, all that may change - or alternatively, we may discover that the old ways were best after all!

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