Books, reading

Reading in Print or on a Screen

A friend was good enough to send me a link to a lengthy paper on literary reading on paper versus on a screen. The Digitization of Literary Reading, by A Mangen, points out quite correctly that the transition between paper books as we know them and digital reading methods is no different than the changes in structure to books themselves from scroll to page, and the dawn of printing, and now to screen with many of the same formats preserved on screen (rectangular, white background black print, margins, and so forth). There’s been a good bit of buzz about this study recently, and I found it interesting to compare the actual paper with what is being reported in popular newssites. Especially as I raised an eyebrow at those reports of ebooks dying, based not only on my personal anecdotal experiences, but the reported experiences of my peer group in social media and private forums.

First of all, I have been reading literature online (for the purposes of this paper, literary reading is any sort of narrative fiction, not a sub-genre as most readers are familiar with it) since 1999. I was a very early adopter of ebooks, reading on the computer screen initially, and later with a Palm Pilot, an iPod Touch, and in the last few years a series of Android phones and tablets. The one device I have not used much of, but my First Reader has, is an e-ink device. Personally, I find if the story is good, I have no trouble in immersive reading, which is one of the criteria of the paper. Because of the affordances of the device, in fact, I find it much easier to read more literary work than if I were limited only to paper books. The devices enable me to carry multiple books with me, and to read under many conditions, with one of the oft pointed-out limitations being the reflective screen in bright sun. However, this is not relevant to me as I do not stand or sit out in full sun for any length of time for health reasons.

ordinary readers do not primarily read literature in order to interpret the texts, but are instead driven by the emotional experiences triggered by particular literary works (Mangen) 

Mangen’s paper is as much concerned with the ephemeral – the emotional attachment of the reader to the story – as it is to the physical connection between reading on paper vs reading on a screen. With e-ink readers, there is little real physical difference. However, he took 145 college students (from ‘the psychology research pool and elsewhere on campus) and handed them one of two things. The choice was five sheets of paper, stapled at the top corner, or an iPad that had been manipulated to not be changeable in font, font size, or orientation. After reading, the participants completed an online survey. The first thing he notes is that the readers of the paper copy knew where they were in the text – in other words, how long the piece they were reading was. Readers on the iPad commented that they did not know how long the story they were reading was.

As he wraps up his study, Mangen’s conclusions that the readers of paper were more emotionally attached to the story than readers on a screen are tempered by the subset who believed they were reading an article (and Mangen points out that his paper ‘booklet’ was more akin to reading a news magazine than a novel) feeling the most emotional about the content they had read, comparatively. He also admits that his reference to the iPad that was locked into configuration was in no way comparative to the e-ink style of reader, and a full length literary work.

Mangen is not hostile toward reading on a screen -in fact, quite the opposite, in that the thrust of his paper is to acknowledge that reading formats are changing, inexorably, and his concern is to create multi-disciplinary studies of the effect of this change. He feels that cooperation is vital to the full understanding of what effects these changes will play on literary reading, which he feels is a vital part of human development and social skills.

For me, I see the rush to use anything, everything, to discount the value of reading online as well as in paper – not exclusionary, but synchronous – as somewhat foolish and an attempt to resist change and cling to the past. Physical books have their values, and are not going to simply disappear. However, reading has already moved beyond paper, and will continue to do so. I even see that ‘reading’ is moving beyond words, to speech, as I hear more and more demand for audiobooks, from people who prefer to listen to a story rather than read it. From the beginning of television, it was derided as a ‘dumbing-down’ and while I can certainly see that, it is also a valid form of storytelling, just as much, and possibly more so, than words on paper. Before paper, there were troupes acting out tales, and people sitting around fires at the end of the day telling stories.

Change is inevitable, and so is resistance to that change. But for me, I am curious where this will lead us.

7 thoughts on “Reading in Print or on a Screen

  1. Small study size, and an apples and oranges comparison, (and if we use the apples and oranges analogy, you had to eat the orange without peeling it, because you can eat the apple without peeling it). I will follow the link and read/skim the entire paper.
    Like you, my first electronic book reader was a Palm Pilot, and it worked OK. My latest reader is a Paperwhite and if I can get what I am interested in reading in an ebook, I am going to read it on the Kindle. Bright sunlight is no problem, and with adjustable font sizes, the reading glasses are a thing of the past.
    And I have the reader set so it tells me where I am in the book.

    1. Yes, your assessment is same as mine. Very small, and biased study group. These are my peers – they don’t read unless they are forced to. Not even material they KNOW they will be tested on for classes. And the group of people willing to take part in studies like this is not normal. There are (heh) studies on that.

      My thought on the comments by participants on the length of what they were reading is that it was brought on by this: the paper felt short. The ebook… could have been a full novel, they didn’t know. For myself, I have a bar on the bottom of the screen when I want to check, which gives me the percentage read. But if the story-arc is satisfying, I don’t care how long (or short) it is.

  2. Due to owning ereaders from the olde Hipstreet vintage, on thru the Libre-reader (self-lighting), on past older Kindles, older Sony eReaders, plus a 2006 vintage Sony eReader, on thru different Android-based machines, I confidently say that the larger screen of a Tower is handy for looking at Maps that some of our Writers include.
    I still have approximately 60 hardcover Baen books, plus some assorted paperbacks, in my bookcase. The eBook wins, when it comes to storage spaces needed, and even creates an excellent way to present a Manual for a Computer, or for a vehicle, due to the ability to quickly jump around!
    Amazing it is, how much paper and printer ink I go through, despite being ‘completely’ into the digital age. Grin.

    1. I acquired a black and white laser printer last year and find that I print happily now due to the reduced cost of ink. For school, or big proofing projects, that’s a really good thing.

      1. After we added up the cost of wasted/dried out ink cartridges, we bought a black and and white laser printer. And after a little more consideration and doing the math, we also bought an entry level laser color printer. The machine can sit turned off for a month, and then wake up when needed to print color. (two years after buying it, we are still on the trial toner cartridges)
        Mostly though, we print on the black and white laser printer.

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