Readers have been dreading the rise of e-books since before the technology even existed. A 1991 New York Times piece predicting the imminent invention of the personal e-reader spurred angry and impassioned letters to the editor. One reader wrote in to express his worry that the new electronic books wouldn't work in the bath.
Twenty-three years later, half of American adults own an e-reading device. A few years ago, Obama set a goal of getting e-textbooks into every classroom by 2017. Florida lawmakers have passed legislation requiring public schools to convert their textbooks to digital versions.
Despite the embrace of e-books in certain contexts, they remain controversial. Many people just don’t like them: They run out of battery, they hurt your eyes, they don’t work in the bath. After years of growth, sales are stagnating. In 2014, 65 percent of 6 to 17-year-old children said they would always want to read books in print—up from 60 percent two years earlier.
Though it has been over 15 years since Project Gutenberg starting publishing classic literature online and seven since Amazon launched the Kindle, research into how e-books change readers’ experience has been scarce. Defenders of print books usually rely on anecdote or intuition—which can make it easy to dismiss them as Luddites or romantics. And the relative lack of data has sometimes forced them to resort to the hyperbolic—Andrew Piper proclaiming that e-reading isn’t reading at all—or the petty—Peter Conrad complaining that e-readers don’t align margins the way he likes. With her new book, Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World, Naomi Baron, a professor of linguistics at American University, brings more data to the case for print. Baron and her colleagues surveyed over 300 university students in the U.S., Japan, Germany, and Slovakia, and found a near-universal preference for print, especially for serious reading. (She finds that the format doesn’t matter so much for “light reading.”) When students were given a choice of various media—including hard copy, cell phone, tablet, e-reader, and laptop—92 percent said they could concentrate best in hard copy.
“The group we assumed would gobble this up were teenagers and young adults,” says Baron. “But they talked about things I didn’t think 18 to 26-year-olds cared about anymore.”
Alice Robb: Why are young people—who are accustomed to doing most things on screens—resistant to e-books?
Naomi Baron: There are two big issues. The first was they say they get distracted, pulled away to other things. The second had to do with eye strain and headaches and physical discomfort.
When I asked what they don’t like about reading on a screen—they like to know how far they’ve gone in the book. You can read at the bottom of the screen what percent you’ve finished, but it’s a totally different feel to know you’ve read an inch worth and you have another inch and a half to go. Or students will tell you about their visual memory of where something was on the page; that makes no sense on a screen. One student said, “I keep forgetting who the author is. In a print book all I have to do is flip back and I see it.” There are all kinds of reasons students will give—“I have a sense of accomplishment when I finish a book and I want to see it on the shelf.” They care about the smell of a book. In the Slovakian data, when I asked what do you like most about reading in hard copy, one out of ten talked about the smell of books. There really is a physical, tactile, kinesthetic component to reading.
AR: So students feel like they’re learning more when they actually read books in print, but do we know whether they actually retain more?
NB: Generally speaking, if you give standardized tests on comprehension of passages, the results are about the same on a screen or on hard copy. There are a number of studies that have been done in different countries—in Germany, Austria, Israel, United States, Norway.
But you have to ask: What do you want to measure? Do you want to measure comprehension? That’s a fairly plain, middle-school way of talking about what it means to read. Did you get so involved in that book that you didn’t notice what was going on around you? That you insisted on staying up until three o’clock in the morning? Did you cry?
My research shows people are more likely to re-read if they have a book in hard copy. You might see the title on your shelf and think, “I hadn’t thought about that scene in a long time.” There are certain connections we make that go beyond decoding words.
AR: You argue in the book that e-books make reading a more social, less personal experience.
NB: If you’re annotating on a Kindle, on a Kobo, you see—you know how many people thought that word was really important, or maybe everybody else liked this passage. If we sat and thought about it, what we think the author has to say. … Rather, we’re just trying to present ourselves or fit in.
AR: Why do students buy e-books if they don’t like them?
NB: One argument that students give in favor of electronic media is saving the environment. But this is a hard thing to measure well. If you read 400 books in the life-span of your kindle, was that energy-efficient? Probably. But then there’s the question of energy and recycling. Where is it that these devices get recycled? Who does the recycling? What kind of protective gear do they have? And in terms of all those trees we use for paper—we have creative ways of using woodchips or whatever to make paper.
In the United States, e-books are less expensive. Students will say, “I’d like to have the print version, but the electronic version is so much less expensive.” But if you buy a book used, the publisher and the author are not getting any money but they are getting another reader and they’re not cutting another tree. And the cost is less. And if it goes to a third generation the cost is really less.
My major concern, as a person in higher education, is that we’re not listening. We’re assuming we’re being helpful by lowering price, by making it more convenient, by helping the environment, but we don’t bother asking our students what they think.
This post has been updated.