Reading eBooks and Paper (Julian Baggini in FT)

There’s a thoughtful essay by Julian Baggini in the June 20, 2014 Financial Times on current research comparing reading and comprehension using eBooks vs. paper. Baggini cites a lot of different research on reading speed, comprehension, learning and other issues relating to how we process information which we read. The essay summarizes a very wide-range of diverse research, which doesn’t point to a single conclusion–good, bad, fast, slow, short-form. long-form. He reports that researchers see a strong “cultural bias” on what one learned to use as a child. That’s unsurprising, given the role which education has in conditioning us. His conclusion (which doesn’t really do justice–read the whole thing):

Overall, there doesn’t seem to be any convincing evidence that reading on screen or paper is better per se. “If the cognitive component is strong,” suggests Benedetto, “the cultural one is even stronger.” For Margolin, “the preference for reading on paper or a screen seems to be just that: a preference.” And, increasingly, younger people are opting for digital. A large National Literary Trust survey last year found 52 per cent of 8- to 16-year-olds preferred reading on screen, with just 32 per cent preferring print.

Mangen suggests that we need more longitudinal studies, conducted over decades, before we can figure out which effects of different reading media are due to familiarity or lack of it, and which are “related to more innate aspects of human cognition”.

Yet research has already told us a lot about how we read now. First and foremost, it emphasises that even using paper, there are many different approaches. Most of us probably have a settled style: you might be a skimmer, a skipper, a front-to-back completist, a keeper of the pristine page or an obsessive writer of marginalia. Whatever the case, our habits have probably been created largely as combination of childhood experience and how the medium we read in is nudging us. Simply being more aware of the alternatives might help us to read better, avoiding distraction to get immersed in fiction, for example, or self-consciously breaking the flow of non-fiction reading to make sure we’re processing the information.


By Paul Romaine

Paul Romaine is a grant writer and independent curator in New York City.

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