From the Editor: E-books vs. printed pages10/31/2013
As a publishing house that distributes content over a wide range of media—from special-edition hardcovers to bare bones e-books—it’s not surprising that readers often ask for our take on the fate of reading. (If we had a quarter for every time we were queried about the possible death of books, we could quit fundraising for a decade, but alas, no quarters). After we posted about a recent panel called “How We Read Now,” which was held at the preeminent and estimable Micawbers Bookstore, someone on Facebook asked what the difference is, why it matters if you read on paper or e-ink or backlit display? While it’s nearly impossible to answer the question definitively at this point, one interesting way to think about it—a way that came to mind during our panel—is on the basic level of how our brains react to the difference.
In a recent article on Salon, entitled “Do e-readers Inhibit Reading Comprehension,” Ferris Jabr outlines that, while there have been major increases in the level of reading comprehension achieved by readers using digital devices in recent years, the technology still lags behind printed books in several key aspects. It appears that there is still something unique about the experience of reading a physical book, and it isn’t just the nostalgia factor. When we read on paper we are able to better contextualize the information we are taking in. We can see how much we’ve read, how much we have left to read, and where on the page text is located. With e-reading, the text becomes a long stream of words, implacable in terms of a physical landscape.
I’d recommend reading the article if you’re interested in the science. But in answer to the question, is there a difference? We can confidently say yes: there is a fundamental difference in brain function between reading on a screen and reading a printed book. Why does the difference matter? Well, it seems we’re not sure. So read away, however you’d like, but if you find yourself forgetting passages from that e-book, you may want to head in to Micawbers and pick up the paper edition.