Periodically in my Facebook feed I get people posting articles like this, Science Has Great News for People Who Read Actual Books. By “actual books” the author means a physical book, and in particular a codex. Apparently at a conference last month a study was presented where a sample of 50 individuals produced a result where there was more recall of plot points from 30 page story better when reading on a book than an e-reader (N = 25 for each treatment). The report in The Guardian finishes:
The Elizabeth George study included only two experienced Kindle users, and she is keen to replicate it using a greater proportion of Kindle regulars. But she warned against assuming that the “digital natives” of today would perform better.
“I don’t think we should assume it is all to do with habits, and base decisions to replace print textbooks with iPads, for instance, on such assumptions. Studies with students, for instance, have shown that they often prefer to read on paper,” she said.
First, someone who is presenting a huge result based on N = 50 (and a W.E.I.R.D. one at that) has a lot of chutzpah in advising caution at such broad general statements. The only true digital natives today are under the age of 10 when it comes to reading on devices such as the Kindle. These sorts of studies seem keen on reiterating the prejudices of the contemporary median readership. Who cares what median students prefer today? A few years ago MySpace was preferred. I believe that if these studies were going on in the 4th century A.D. then you’d see just how much the well educated Roman preferred the scroll to the uncouth codex (though a well educated Greek slave was probably the most “haptic” and “serendipitous” reading device of all!). The “actual book” is actually an innovation, as widespread utilization of the codex format took centuries to become the norm. The Christian Bible was one of the first books habitually in the codex format, and the spread of Christianity has been credited with the popularization of the codex in relation to the scroll. The point is that a “book” is an abstraction. The codex, scroll, or e-reader, is its concrete manifestation. Perhaps it is true that the codex format is ideally optimized for human comprehension. I suspect not. Humans are much more prejudiced toward their habits than they are optimized toward reading. Humans didn’t evolve with reading.
There are real problems with the e-reader format. I dislike being unable to jump between pages “naturally” too. But, I’m rather sure that these problems will be solved at some point. The codex has had 2,000 years. Give e-readers at least another 10.
Also, let’s keep it real, the average American does not read very much. The main reason I’ve mostly switched to e-reader format is that I hate having to lug around many books (and I am not a hoarder, I sell/discard books regularly). If the mean number of books read is 12, while the median is 5, you know the distribution isn’t normal. There are many people who don’t read at all, and a few who read a lot. Of those 12 books many are going to be paperbacks. It’s pretty easy to imagine storing a dozen paperbacks. I have a lot of textbooks, as well as academic press books. And I’m on the mild side compared to people who are older or have more of a hoarding habit. I wonder how much an acceptance of the convenience of the e-book formats correlates with people who read too much to not clutter their houses if they stick with the traditional physical formats.
Addendum: If my hardcover books could be compressed somehow so they took up minimal space I might prefer hardcover to e-book. The main thing I would miss is the search features, but I might trade that for being able to jump easily between pages (there are indexes!). I’m not sure that my daughter or son would make the same decision though.