The science of ebooks vs. print books

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Once upon a time, the word “book” meant only one thing: a stack of paper printed with text and bound together along one edge.

These days, though, the word “book” has developed two meanings. You can still read a bound-stack-of-paper book, but you can also read a book without ever touching anything that was once part of a tree, because the text has become divorced from the physical artifact to which it was once bound, thanks to the development of electronic reading devices.

I will admit up front that I was an early convert to electronic reading. I bought my first ebook reader many years ago, before hardly anyone had such a device. These days, I read on my iPhone and my iPad. My 10-year-old daughter owns a Kobo.

Ebooks are becoming more and more popular, but there are still those who swear up and down that they will never read from an electronic screen, that the only way they will give up paper books is when they are pried from their cold, dead hands.

Despite such passion on the printed-book side, ebook sales continue to soar, and ebook readers are becoming better, cheaper, and more ubiquitious. How can a lover of text-on-dead-trees continue to defend his/her choice?

Science may offer some ammunition in the ongoing debate. For instance, a study conducted last year by Jacob Nielsen of the Nielsen Norman Group, a California-based usability consulting firm, tested three different ways to read e-books–on the PC, the Kindle 2, and the iPad–against the reading of paper books. Nielsen found that those reading any of the ebook versions were as much as 10 percent slower than those reading the printed versions. (Reading on the PC was the slowest—and least popular—of all.)

Then there was the University of Washington report this spring on a pilot project in which computer science students used a Kindle DX (the largest version) for their course reading. College textbooks in ebook form would be cheaper for students, and much easier to lug around, so they are generally seen as a kind of “holy grail” of the ebook industry…but alas, seven months into the pilot project, more than 60 percent of students had stopped using their Kindle for academic reading. Those who kept using them tucked paper into the case in order to write notes (even though you can take electronic notes on the Kindle). Others would read near a computer they could use for reference and other tasks the device didn’t make easy.

And then there was this particularly interesting study tidbit, as given in the press release: “The digital text also disrupted a technique called cognitive mapping, in which readers used physical cues, such as the location on the page and the position in the book, to find a section of text or even to help retain and recall the information they had read.”

So, text-on-paper-holdouts, science is on your side, right?

Well, not so fast. This week another study emerged from Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz that, according to the lead researcher, Professor Dr. Stephan Füssel, provides a scientific basis “for dispelling the widespread misconception that reading from a screen has negative effects.”

In this study, participants in two sample groups, young adults and elderly adults, read various texts with various degrees of complexity on an ebook reader (Kindle 3), a tablet PC (iPad) and on paper. Their reading behavior and neural activity were assessed by tracking eye movements and through EEGs, and through questionnaires to measure text comprehension and information recall.

The results? Although readers almost universally stated they liked reading printed books best, there was no difference in terms of reading performance between reading from paper and from the Kindle. And when it came to the iPad, older readers actually exhibited faster reading times when using it. Not only that, the data indicated that information was processed more easily when it was read from the tablet.

So where does that leave us? Right back where we started: with personal preference. If you’re only willing to read text printed on bound paper, then by all means stick with printed books. If you’re comfortable reading on a screen, you have a plethora of possibilities.

As a writer, I think I speak for everyone who makes their living with words: we don’t care how you read, we just care that you read. So read, already!

Oh, wait…if you made it this far, I guess you just did.

(The photo: a box full of print copies of Magebane, my latest novel.)

Permanent link to this article: https://edwardwillett.com/2011/10/the-science-of-ebooks-vs-print-books/

1 comment

    • DianaG on December 15, 2011 at 3:12 am
    • Reply

    There are no disadvantages to reading from ereaders compared with reading printed books, because it’s easier to read from this device, in my opinion. However, I must admit that it’s not quite the same thing. An advantage is that we can find many sites where we can download some for free. A site like this is All You Can Books, which I found it accidentally on an online library.

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