The Reading Format Grudge Match: Paper v. Screen

January 14, 2016

It’s funny how often SF writers predicted the future.  Verne imagined exploring space and the ocean floor, Bradbury predicted earbuds and my favorite, Robert Heinlein foresaw the Cold War, the Internet and helped invent water-beds.  Still the development Heinlein predicted that I enjoy the most was in his novel Time Enough for Love.  In that book, Heinlein not only foresaw the development of the e-reader, he predicted the difference between the traditional “paper” book fans and the screen readers.  However, I doubt if he realized how silly that battle would get.

According to that source of all knowledge, Wikipedia, e-readers actually started in the 1930’s, long before the computer age (or I) was born and Project Gutenberg started digitizing texts 40 years later. Of course, the hardware wasn’t really available to the public then to make the data easily accessible but once personal computers and access to the internet became a common household item, the times began a changing.  People began reading books on screens.  Then eight years ago, Amazon upended everything by coming out with the Kindle, first as a standalone e-reading pad and later as a software app that allowed the user to keep and use an entire library on any computer: from the CPU at home, to the hand-held smart phone.  The format grudge match was on.
Now I’ll admit that reading off screens can give the dedicated reader a monumental case of eye-strain.  The night I realized the entire Anne of Green Gables series was available on Gutenberg’s website, I strained my eyes racing through all the books in one night.  Of course, I am a card-carrying weirdo. Strained eyes and a headache weren’t going to stop me from making sure Anne ended up with Gilbert Blythe.  Since then, screen texts have become a lot easier to read.  So what’s the fuss?
Part of it, some friends insist, is the gestalt of the book reading experience.  No e-reader, they say, can compare to feeling the size and weight of a book and turning the printed pages; in a way they have a point.  For devotees to the act of reading, no delight is quite like lifting a hefty book that you’ve been wanting to read.  But when I’m lost in a story, I lose focus on minor details like the number of pages left in the book (or where I am).  I read until the tale is done or the book falls from my hand as I drop off to sleep (and I can hold the light e-reader in my hand longer than a heavy, traditional book).   Let’s put it this way: if you’re reading the books of Marcel Proust, an e-reader could save you from straining your wrist.  But if you insist on reading in the tub, paper is the only reasonable candidate. No e-reader I know has learned to survive a dip in the bath.
A real area of concern is comprehension: the e-reader has limited worth as a tool if screen reading results in lower comprehension.  As a teacher, my sis worries about that kind of thing and she sent this article that suggests that “deep reading”, reading that involves contemplation as well as visual auditing, falls off when people read off of screens instead of paper.  However the studies in the article didn’t list any hard data to support their worry – just the notice that people are more dis-tractable when they’re reading off the screen. Since most e-reading is done from the same machine that handles the users phone calls, text messages and social media, it may not be the act of screen reading that creates the distraction but the inputs a user gets while using the machine.  And the question of comprehension is still in debate.  In 2012, a Norwegian study suggested the format made a difference in reading comprehension.  Last year, a French study came to the opposite conclusion.  
So does the format change how we experience or incorporate knowledge from reading?  I don’t know.  I wish we could settle the question but I hope the medium is not the message.  To me, a great story is a great story and I don’t care if I read those words from a page, a screen or painted on the sky by a plane.  The story is what matters, the prose and the characters, the narrative, themes and thought.  Without that we are arguing about the frame of an artwork; the masterpiece inside would be gone.
Or so says the card-carrying weirdo.

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