Yes, it’s true: the latest research indicates that reading material in print rather than in an electronic reader is better for you in the following ways:

  • Increased comprehension. The tactile experience of reading a printed book actually matters. Check out the research.
  • Related to the above, we’re more likely to read every line of printed material. When we read e-books, we tend to read the first line and then just the words near the beginning of the line after that.
  • We lose the ability to engage in linear reading if we don’t do it often.
  • Reading printed material for about an hour before bedtime helps us sleep. Reading ebooks keeps us awake.

I read both e-books and print books, and I’m grateful for my e-readers (really, the apps on my iPad) when I’m traveling. It’s easier to carry 1000 books on one iPad than it is to carry five in a backpack.

But I know what the researchers mean by the tactile elements of memory, the feeling of better control over your media with pages, etc. I do remember where to find things in books by their physical location in the book, which isn’t possible with an e-reader: you can only search terms and page numbers. I think the point here isn’t which search method is more efficient, but which reading style engages more of the brain by engaging more of our physical senses.

I’d like you to consider a few things about the way we developed our technologies:

  • The people who developed our technologies didn’t have our technologies. In other words, the people who built the first computer didn’t have computers.
  • The engineers who landed men on the moon did most of their work on slide rules.
  • The computers that they did use had less computing power than our telephones.

14 thoughts on “Reading Print Books Is Better than Reading E-Books

  1. The book format should be preserved for that which is worth the resource and energy cost. If I want to read “Candide” or great literature a book is better. However, (and I have these in book form) reading something like Leon Panetta’s “Worthy Fights” or George W. Bush on his father, while pleasant in book form, how long is the information useful, why should it take up space for 20 years until you die (because books are hard to pass on). Thus, doing it on an e-book certainly is cheaper and with the potential for links to sources, can be an extremely rich experience.

    But then, except for portability, what is good about an e-book that has only text in it. (Cheap, easy to carry, adjustable fonts, sure.) They benefit the good reader. The real breakthrough is multimedia. The ability to use videos and audio in addition to pictures and text. This allows the many who cannot read to participate in the learning community. There are many people who did not make the K-3 learn to read gate and therefore don’t make the 4-12 and beyond read to learn gate. There are so many people for whom books do not work and I think back on the agony that school must have been for the poor reader.

    So both media have their uses. I do believe that paper will continue to decline as the basic means of reading. It costs too much.


    1. Thanks for responding, Don. The research findings indicate that comprehension is lower for e-books than for print books because reading habits are different. Readers tend to read e-books in an “F” pattern: the entire first line, and then just the initial words of subsequent lines. If you use a device with a backlit screen, the e-reader will make it more difficult to sleep as well. It wasn’t about some kind of wholesale rejection of e-books, however.

      I would say it’s difficult to judge what is worthy of preservation in print. Great books, being found in English translation out of copyright, are the most accessible electronically, usually being free, while recent and speciality books are the most likely to be print-only or in both print and e-formats.

      The biggest reason, to me, for the preservation of print is that putting everything in electronic form will put on off-switch on all human knowledge: access can be restricted relatively easily in a centralized way. That level of censorship ability isn’t healthy for a free society and shouldn’t be allowed. It’s easier to cut off access to banned e-books by restricting rights than it is to find every copy of a print book and eliminate them all.

      In terms of cost, you need to consider that print books are available for free through libraries, that services like Bookmooch make books cost only the price of shipping, that used books often cost the same or less than new e-books, and that most e-readers require at least $200.00 before they can be used, or at least a computer. If you factor in the cost of the device, e-books aren’t necessarily cheaper.


  2. You’re right, the physicality of the book is a huge memory aid — a crutch as far as Socrates was concerned — so maybe doing away with it will result in serious readers developing their memories in new or different ways. Maybe they will experience a return to some of the practices of oral culture. I would like to think we will actually reach a point when all computing devices and personal screens are replaced by a new type of networked e-book or digital paper.

    This research you mention sure matches my experience of ebooks as ungainly, disengaging, crappy interfaces that inhibit memory and comprehension. At bottom the problem is how they inhibit connection with life — other people and the world — because they are so pristine. The phenomenology of today’s ebook is deeply inadequate to give presence to the digital text. Loaded into a tablet-like reader the text still never really enters the lifeworld. It would mean nothing to have a used ebook “signed” by the author or previously owned by anyone else. This compromises the cognitive and social value of the printed book as an interface to other minds — the author and a community of other readers.

    Meaningful sharing is the whole point of networked machines that share our texts, images, voices, and ideas, but tablets, phones, and desktops do this poorly They are all constrained by their rigid single surfaces through which anything and everything can be conveyed to anyone and everyone. The ideal and universal interface would be a non-rigid leaf or a book like any since antiquity — touch it, flip it, write on it, gather it into a group of other pages — but now speak to it and to other people through it, let it speak itself to you. Do all your work and creative play on this page — no tabs and windows, just one page at a time, each one a window to your cloud, the campus cloud, the global cloud.

    All printed books are “used” and thus “shared” and a medium for a larger communal memory and dialogue but not one so large as to be a meaningless deluge of every networked reader on the internet. Like you I remember where to find things in books by their physical location — not just in the book but by what the book looks, feels, and smells like — and where I’ve located it among other books. This may be common only to people who have been deeply and perhaps professionally immersed in “the culture of the codex.” It is something that just developed naturally with my own library and any library I’ve spent much time in. With library cards, at least at small libraries, there used to be a built in history of the “masters,” friends, classmates, and maybe relatives who had been there before you. Thanks to library cards I learned to recognize the marginal notes and marks of certain professors I studied under or wanted to get to know. Their names and marks written into shared books indicated who had read what and often what they had thought about what they read. This could later orient conversations in and out of class. It’s this dialogue with books and ideas across time that makes a deep literacy and a humanistic, literate culture possible. The keepers of the word keep it together in community by leaving and sharing their marks. When new technology can foster this as well as print did, we will finally have hardware and an interface adequate to the internet.

    I think it’s likely that nothing will never replace the old book technology for its archival and aesthetic qualities, but something like “digital paper” could take over for 100% of the utility value of printed matter. Imagine a flexible, durable, thin, nearly weightless, double-sided surface that is like paper but works like a touch screen. Think what this would be like with FiftyThree’s Pencil stylus and Paper app. It would eliminate the negative visual-neurological impact of backlit displays, and transcend the limited durability and interaction possibilities of a rigid surface. A single-sided surface would be sufficient, but you could also have a bound “book” of double-sided digital pages simply for the human interface value of actually physically paging through a book rather than searching or scrolling.


    1. Let me respond to one idea, though, Dan: I don’t think the death of print books could possibly lead to the recovery of an orally literate culture with increased memory capabilities simply because we would have to eradicate all media to get to that point: all forms of electronic, printed, and broadcast media. That’s the only thing that would take us back to Socrates’s world. At that point, we could still safely retain handwritten books (the codex) and use them only for specialized purposes.

      But of course there’s no going back to that, and I’m not sure that it’s desirable.

      The loss of printed matter, then, would just result in people who are even less cognitively capable than they are now: less able to remember, comprehend, or sustain attention. A purely electronic-media based society would also involve very high levels of centralized control over our knowledge base and our freedom of expression: “they” could cut off anything they want by revoking rights to it.

      We already have problems with all three of the cognitive issues mentioned above, in fact: just teach a freshman writing class again and you’ll see. What I think we need in K-12 instruction is:

      1. Decreased reliance on electronic media and instruction in K-12 for the sake of our childrens’ cognitive development. Our kids need to detach from the screen.
      2. Healthy, natural foods in schools, and no junk, candy or colas anywhere. Kids should be able to get two healthy meals in school. For many of our kids, that’s the only place it’ll happen.
      3. Increased investment in teachers and teacher training, smaller classrooms, with an emphasis on feedback-rich pedagogy, which is possible with smaller classes.
      4. Disinvestment in massive testing contractors. If we defund standardized testing, that by itself would provide much of the funds needed for items 1-3. It’s getting to the point where the purpose of K-12 public ed. is to provide profits for standardized testing companies.
      5. Skills-based assessments rather than standardized tests.



      1. I see it differently. I’m not worried about the censorship and spying; that’s already there and will just have to be dealt with as we muddle along. I’m not worried about the power going out; that’s beyond control too, and we know this is ultimately why you keep permanent storage media, which in the end is still paper. I agree with you about all the school stuff, but most most of that is a different subject. Schools, like the workplace, and everywhere else, have never figured out how to use computing devices well. I hope that really settling into some standard practices and cultures with technology will start to occur soon. It has to happen, and I do think it will center on memory, mobility, and managing cognitive load. This will “take us back” to the peripatetic philosopher or pacing rhetorician with nothing in hand but a note, if even that.

        Technology “brings back” orality and memory skills in some big ways for the creators and serious consumers of media. For video and audio production, it’s pretty obvious how this is so — at bottom it is about classic acting, storytelling, and rhetorical skills to which memory is key. For those of us who mostly create, read, update, and delete words and data all day memory is important too, and our virtual tools have probably made it a harder task.

        With so much digital information that is often shorn of physical and social context that would otherwise help impress it into memory (as well as the inadequacies of “search” tools), remembering where material is and what it is has become much more challenging — at least for me — because more demanding on the memory. I suppose the thing to do is get used to Evernote or something like that, which I have never done. I think this is stuff a graphical operating system ought to be able to do, and a future intelligent one should do it as well as a human secretary. I’m resistant to the idea that yet another application is the fix. I think less is likely to be more. It has to be the right less though.

        Tracking any kind of creative work from literature to software code is a similar process. There are tools for this, which I use, but I don’t really love them; they’ve never felt as right as a blank book because it is so easy to lose your place and become disoriented in new or old material since it all looks the same — which is why written comments and documentation are so important in code. I suspect even software development, which associates “starting on paper” with its most primitive days, will one day be done again on e-paper when voice and touch interfaces let us do away with (or with much less of) the last big legacy item, the keyboard. Keyboards are relics of a compromise made with quality for speed in late print culture; they greatest users and lovers of keyboards today use them like nobody else — they are masters of memory, the kings of the command line. Look up Jeff Atwood’s custom Hacker keyboard and the story behind it to see what I mean.

        Stuff like version history and control is cognitively difficult no matter how you do it. Some application designers have started to figure this out and realize the value of “grafitti” and visually personalizing markers that cue up a flood of critically useful and motivating memories when you pull up one card out of 100 in a project management app for one project and you have 10 projects… Or when you look at 10 lines of code from 10,000 lines in that project which has been worked on by 20 people. You need to quickly be able to see if not remember what you did, and what others did before. I recall Amazon describing (when the Kindle was new) a social reading experience that would work like this, but it has not yet been realized. Social programming and design is much more developed but still in an early stage inhibited by our hardware.

        Technology adding layers of abstraction is not always a cognitive load-lightener; often it is the opposite. Remember Eco writing that the command line is “Protestant?” The traditional programmer who is building the basis for our abstract world of interfaces often cares little for it and values the option to bypass it. He can do because he has memorized languages and grammars that can control machines at much lower levels. Masters of the command line probably have something in common in their own ars memoriae with the early modern “memory theater” — an imagined visual interface you keep in mind yourself rather than develop as a Graphical User Interface on the Vannevar/Memex model brought to us by Xerox, Apple, and Microsoft.


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