From the Editor: E-books vs. printed pages

by Patrick Thomas
on

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.

Patrick Thomas, editor and program manager of Milkweed Editions

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.

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17 Responses to From the Editor: E-books vs. printed pages

  1. As someone who has been reading since the age of 4 on paper mostly until recently, the big difference between screen and paper I can see is this: when I read a paper book, I have an almost photographic memory of WHERE on the page and which page the information, pithy quote, turn of phrase was on and I can retrieve it by going to the page physically. When I read on a computer or an e-reader I can’t do that for whatever reason–probably because the page is ephemeral–and I find I am actually thinking and retaining more about what I am reading rather than the words and their placement on the media. Might be a insignificant detail to some, but as a writer to whom words and their arrangement are important, it has changed the way I think…and paradoxically I find I am actually a more facile writer. My last two books have never seen ink on paper–e-books only–and what thrills me about this is the cost savings I am able to pass on to my readers. $3.99 as opposed to $25.00 for a hard cover. What I would love to see is indie “book” stores embracing this change–it isn’t going away–and reinvent themselves as some sort of clearinghouse for quality, while getting a percentage of sales of course. Cheers, Bathsheba Monk

  2. Lindsay says:

    This is really interesting Patrick — I’ve wondered about this very thing. In a non-scientific review of my friends, it does seem that beyond the nostalgia of holding a book, people experience the world differently when holding a book or newspaper. If one reads from their phone, your head is down and focused on a small area. Whereas reading a book and newspaper naturally lets you engage the people and place around you. We’ve turned so inward to our digital devices, that reading a book in my opinion, is a refreshing way for time to myself and yet still observe the world around me.

    • Patrick Thomas says:

      Well said Lindsay. Another factor of reading on a networked device is distractibility: A printed book probably won’t ping you with facebook updates or email notifications. A lot of publishers wonder how much these distractions will hurt sales as the iPad continues to outpace dedicated ereaders in sales.

  3. Mark says:

    With a physical book you have the whole thing from A toZ in your hand. You can easily flip back to reference something you read earlier, or easily compare passages in different books. Imagine if only e-readers existed and someone invented books. It would be revolutionary.

    • Fantastic point Mark, people often forget that the printed book is a form of technology itself, one that has been refined over a relatively enormous period of time.

  4. I use printed and e-book. I am a big fan of e-material. It is convenient, portable, and does not require recycling the material.

    If I am going to mark up something, I like a printed copy. If I am browsing or reading purely for entertainment, I like an e-copy. The same is for research materials. There is much, as n example, in professional journal articles, news articles, and academic books that is not pertinent to the research question. One can get what is important, write down the source, and be done with it. I have found online library access, Questia, Wikipedia, and such e-sources as enormously valuable media.

    Yu can lay in bed or sit in an easy chair and read an e-reader. To read a paper copy you have to have a bunch of lights banging your eyes into oblivion. I don’t always like to sit at a desk to do reading of materials.

    There is a place for both. As a last point, some works are keepers and others are not. I want to have more than an e-book of Moby Dick, as an example, but I really do not want a hardcopy of Fifty Shades of Grey. I have read them both.

    • Thanks for commenting Larry. You are far from alone in the way you’ve been consuming content: Data on book purchasing habits shows that “throwaway” books (those genres many of us love to read, but would rather not advertise on our bookshelves or even in our hands) are the most popular and fastest growing sector of ebook sales. You can buy all your “keeper” books from Milkweed! For instance, if you like Moby Dick and you don’t have A Whaler’s Dictionary yet (http://milkweed.org/shop/product/171), you’ve got to check it out. Email elizabeth_ireland(at)milkweed.org and tell her I gave you my staff discount (40%).

  5. Jo Anne Burgh says:

    All other things being equal, I’ll always take a print book over an e-book. The sensory experience (especially with the scent of an old book) is unparalleled. Although my work requires a great deal of reading on the screen, I routinely print off the important documents so that I can focus on the paper and mark them up by hand. Call it habit if you like. All I know is that it just works better–I remember what I’ve read, why it was important, and where to find it.

    All other things are not always equal, however. I first bought an e-reader when my pastor announced he was going to start preaching from the English Standard Version; since the ESV study Bible is only slightly smaller than my first car, I knew there was no way I’d be hauling it back and forth to church–hence the e-reader (from The Company That Shall Not Be Mentioned). Every time I slip it into my bag, I’m reminded of the times when I used to go on vacation with a suitcase full of books to read on the beach and think, “If only there were an easier way. . . .”

    The e-reader had a second advantage: I could make the print bigger, and as anyone using a regular Bible knows, the print tends to be quite tiny. Since I bought the large size, I could make the print a decent size and not be advancing pages every two sentences. (Reading on the tiny phone screen is for times of desperation only, such as when my dinner date is delayed and I’ve already read and re-read the menu.)

    The biggest disadvantage to the e-reader is that I forget I own the books. When I’m looking for something to read, I scan my bookcases; I don’t pull out the e-reader to see what’s there that I might have forgotten. Other disadvantages were mentioned above, such as not having a sense of where a favorite passage is located.

    Bottom line: pluses and minuses on both sides, but in the end, for me, the balance tips in favor of paper.

    • “Since the ESV study Bible is only slightly smaller than my first car, I knew there was no way I’d be hauling it back and forth to church–hence the e-reader”! Well said Jo Anne. When I started work as an editor I used to travel with at least three manuscripts at any time. The ereader has definitely saved me a few trips to the chiropractor. Read well!

  6. todd Michael Cox says:

    You can’t swat a fly with an e-book. Well you can, but only once. And no one will ever say they love the smell of an e-reader.

    These are not the top reasons why real books are better than techno-gadget-thingamabobs, but they’re important ones.

    –TmC

    • I’ve actually swatted a number of flies with my old sony reader, but after the first one, it stopped working. I’m not sure whether that was because of the physical damage, or because it was a sony reader. Both are reasonable theories.

  7. Kevin Sheridan says:

    The best presents I give and get are books, even books I don’t like. They always fit, are more fun to shop for than kitchen utensils, and can be personalized with a brief note or some spilled coffee.

    All new books eventually become used books that sloppy people like myself sully. When I do the big exit, one of my kids might pick up and read one of my books. The big stain on page 23 might remind them of their dear old dad and they might smile quietly to themself and think of me.

    • I believe I may have received just such a book from a beloved and book-inclined uncle. A Best American Short Stories collection from the 80s, handed to me just when I needed it. And every time I see it on the shelf or pull it out to read, there he is.

  8. Heidi Czerwiec says:

    I’m prone to awful migraines, and while books with small print can sometimes bother me, I’ve had so many headaches from my Kindle that I just gave up on it.

  9. Micah says:

    Saw your FB post, and it made me think of a bookmark we made years ago. Thought I’d send along its message…

    “The digital army is besieging the battlements of the city of books. I recommend keeping a well-armed (and financed and fortified) Milkweed Editions on guard at the city gates to keep the high-tech gift horses at bay. That is, if you like the feel of a lovely book in your hands.” — Bill Holm

    • Classic, thanks for bringing that one back Micah. If only I could have had Bill by my side for this post–he would have insisted on far more strident language.

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