E-book Luddites might have a point

2013-10-17 01.08.11

I’m rather fond of my Kindle and am generally a big fan of the idea of e-readers. I like being able to carry a lot of book around with me and being able to adjust the print size. And I’ve been sceptical about those who claim that there’s something inferior about them relative to paper books. It seemed to me that people who thought this way were overvaluing what they were familiar with and conflating form with content.

Shows what I know:

A 2014 study found that readers of a short mystery story on a Kindle were significantly worse at remembering the order of events than those who read the same story in paperback. Lead researcher Anne Mangen of Norway’s Stavanger University concluded that “the haptic and tactile feedback of a Kindle does not provide the same support for mental reconstruction of a story as a print pocket book does.”

Our brains were not designed for reading, but have adapted and created new circuits to understand letters and texts. The brain reads by constructing a mental representation of the text based on the placement of the page in the book and the word on the page.

The tactile experience of a book aids this process, from the thickness of the pages in your hands as you progress through the story to the placement of a word on the page. Mangen hypothesizes that the difference for Kindle readers “might have something to do with the fact that the fixity of a text on paper, and this very gradual unfolding of paper as you progress through a story is some kind of sensory offload, supporting the visual sense of progress when you’re reading.”

While e-readers try to recreate the sensation of turning pages and pagination, the screen is limited to one ephemeral virtual page. Surveys about the use of e-readers suggest that this affects a reader’s serendipity and sense of control. The inability to flip back to previous pages or control the text physically, either through making written notes or bending pages, limits one’s sensory experience and thus reduces long-term memory of the text.

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One thought on “E-book Luddites might have a point

  1. In more formal terms, the argument that she’s making is a very standard one (although somewhat obscured by phrasing) – the process of retrieval from memory enables us to abstract information from contextual cues. But until we’ve completed that process, information is essentially tied to the context in which we first encountered it. The more unique contextual identifiers that we have for a particular experience (e.g. haptic experience of a book), the more ways we have in to reconstructing the episode in which the information was encountered and the more likely we are to successfully retrieve it. This process is also aided if these contextual cues are structured (e.g. linear progression through a book, as signified by paper thickness in each hand), because that means we’re more likely to be able to successfully reconstruct those cues and aren’t dependent on intact encoding of each individual piece of contextual information.

    Flipping backwards is, I think, not just about the sensory experience, but is also about referencing relevant bits of previous information and tying it together into a unified representation; I expect this can also be done with e-readers, but it’s less convenient.

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