Paper v. Screens: Where Should we Read?

You would think that digital books, be it on e-readers or smartphones, would be widely accepted as the quintessential reading experience: they offer the possibility of a pocketable selection of any book. And yet, dissent in the reading community lingers regarding which medium (print or digital) is better, with many refusing the switch to digital altogether. But why would they persist, considering the advantages they forfeit?

The two obvious advantages of reading a book on a screen are portability and price. Physical books are quite heavy and can take up a lot of space in the home, whereas a digital format comes without that burden. Likewise, digital books are often cheaper because of the near non-existent manufacturing cost. Further heightening the price appeal of digital books are those works which have entered the public domain. Any book published before 1924 is no longer under copyright law and can be downloaded for free. So, if digital books are the epitome of convenient reading, why do physical book purists linger?

The first answer might be that physical books carry more value. In reality, used books are cheaper than e-books (which offer no pre-owned option to the buyer) and this might be the reason for sticking with ink and paper: if you are okay buying used, you can buy books for pennies, and then you possess a physical commodity which seems more valuable than an apparition on a screen. “Apparition” is not far from the truth either, as most digital readers do not own their books. If Amazon were to block your kindle account, or quit offering their services for some other reason, you would likely not be able to access your books.

But price is not the only factor influencing book buyers, and the reality of physical books often being cheaper if bought used does not encapsulate what you have likely heard everyone and their mother say, “reading a book on a screen feels different.” Maryanne Wolf, who studies developmental psycholinguistics at UCLA, describes the reading brain as it functions in both literary mediums in her book, Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World (2018). Wolf identifies the two ways in which the brain fails to engage in the digital medium which I believe elucidate a lot of what book purists mean by “reading a book on a screen feels wrong.”

Paper v. Screens: Where Should we Read?

According to Wolf, the first difficulty readers face when reading a digital book is a decreased retention of information relative to the same reading from a hard copy. Memory fails more often when trying to remember a screen, because the brain makes fewer connections to the spatial dimension of the book, just as it has drastically less unique characteristics (like the smell of the book) to associate with the information. Memories are like the center of a web of sensory experiences. For example, when you think of the last wedding you attended, you will recollect many details: the songs, food, conversations, etc. Any of these small bits of sensory experiences alone can take your mind back to other details related to the wedding. Reading a physical book works the same way, because it has more of these extraneous sensory qualities bundled into it that aid our recall later. On a screen, we have no spatial data associated with page numbers or even book size. Also, our fingers fail to grip a different combination of pages with every flip on a tablet. Because the physical book has unique markers that we subconsciously use to catalog the data we read, like the varying amount of paper between both hands, recalling the material is proven to be easier from a physical book.

The second, and graver issue, that Wolf found with screen reading is that screens are not neutral mediums for our brains: the brain carries ready-made assumptions when deciding what is important on a screen or a page. As we are bombarded with information on screens in daily life, we begin to skim in order to keep up with everything. This skimming has now become commonplace: nobody expects anyone else to read a user agreement before selecting ‘ok,’ or thoroughly read every news article and email they come across. Wolf describes the eye tracking studies that have proven this habit of skimming the internet is often carried over to reading a novel on an e-reader, because the brain interprets both processes within the same context and treats them alike. If the screen trained brain were to instead read from a real page, the reader would be less likely to skim and instead immerse themselves in a deep reading state. While skimming a digital book is not something every reader does, when it happens, reading comprehension plummets as the reader is already less likely to properly store the data they are gathering on the screen.  The effects of screen overload on the reading has particularly devastating consequences for kids who, now and in the future, will primarily be accessing books on screens with a brain loaded with the many distractions screens offer.

Wolf has also studied how the effects of skimming on the internet all day affect the reading of physical books even if you are already a regular deep reader or a reader who learned to read before screens were invented. Her findings within this demographic of readers echo the difficulties she found in children and those who are predominantly digital readers, but to a lesser degree of severity. What she found was that if you spend a large part of your day skimming, be it at work, or just on social media, you are much more likely to be distracted and try skimming while you read something not intended to be skimmed. Even if you do not skim, and you read print books, conditioning your brain with screen time throughout the day can make deep reading feel exasperatingly slow, frustrating the reader and discouraging reading in general. Enjoying a novel, or really engaging with an article that interests you becomes difficult for most when they are not used to the slower pace of an engaged read.

It is vital that we acknowledge the effects that our age of info overload has on our reading culture, as reading is at the core of our educational institutions as well as a hobby many enjoy. It is important that we continue to practice deep reading, because there is no specific gene that allows us to read. There is a gene for walking, so naturally, everyone can walk. Even if you are bed ridden for years, you will never forget how to walk. But reading, and especially deep reading, happens when multiple different processes of the mind cooperate. The consequence is that deep reading is something learned through daily practice, never something we are born with nor an ability that we can take for granted. The ability to read deeply has a narrow developmental window in early childhood, which can never be recovered if reading is not thoroughly established. Furthermore, after learning to read deeply, if we quit doing so, we will lose the strength of the muscle and will not have the ability on command without first strengthening it again.

Paper v. Screens: Where Should we Read?

Wolf fears a future where kids’ reading brains develop in a fundamentally different way due to the technology that they are immersed in. She believes that it is possible for children to learn to read, as in, understand all the words by skimming through to get the gist, but they might be unable to immerse themselves in a book. This would bar them from digesting any challenging literature that every generation has enjoyed, since we learned to read and write.

The Verdict 

If reading was something you once enjoyed, but now have no time for, the skimming inherent in our screen bound lifestyle could be the cause. If you want to rekindle that enjoyment, pick up a physical book and devote twenty minutes a day to it. Wolf herself had to retrain her reading brain this way.

I think the difficulty of retaining information from a book on a screen is a large part of the reason that some readers despairingly call the e-book ‘different.’ This idea plays into the feeling of distraction imbued by so much information, and the brain’s treatment of books as another source to skim. Book purists are not necessarily wrong, e-reading is different for many readers. The important takeaway is that the possible limits of each medium are understood and applied to your reading habits. If the goal is to read on a vacation, digital is best. If you are considering a digital textbook to save $50, in the long run, the print copy might be better.

If e-reading works for you that is fine, but remember the threat that it poses. In a world where social media detoxes are growing in popularity, physical books seem, at a minimum, a cozy, quiet retreat.


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