Recently, there’s been speculation and some evidence that using e-reading devices slows you down and makes you more apt to forget what you’ve read.
These hypotheses are based on observations coupled with well-established research in memory and cognition which finds repeatedly that contextual clues aid retention and that some artifacts of book design speed information uptake. Using e-readers in the place of books is akin to looking at a place in a picture and living in it — there’s an experiential quality to walking the streets, smelling the smells, seeing the perspective shift as you move through the buildings, and so forth. Three-dimensional space and layers of sensation provide context.
Part of the problem with e-reading essentially boils down to the repetitive nature of the package (the e-reader) and the textual presentation (the uniform font used in Kindles and other mainstream e-readers).
E-readers deprive the reading experience of important aspects of context and three-dimensional experience:
- Covers – With a book, you see the cover again and again, and often read both the front cover and the back cover repeatedly, all as part of savoring a good book. The cover may have a different texture, embossed lettering, the author’s picture, or other memorable features. You may love or hate the design, or slowly grow to understand the design’s import as the story unfolds. In print, you experience the cover; with e-readers, you may glimpse a facsimile of the cover once or twice during the early stages (buying or opening the file), but then it is lost.
- Handling – Books have heft and shape. A heavy cardboard for the endboards, a dense or light paper, a square or rectangular shape, a thickness or thinness — all these cues add context to the reading experience. E-readers make every book weigh the same, every page the same shape, every handling experience similar.
- Typeface – It’s rare for an e-book to have anything but the device’s default typeface, yet type is one of the ways designers can convey — slowly, subtly — a unique feel to the page, the words, the shape of the story. I distinctly remember the way a certain adolescent adventure of no real merit read almost deliciously because the typeface was so palatable. Type can create definite mental signatures, and provide real context. E-readers mostly shift this aside.
- Spreads – Books are built on facing-page layouts. Chapters often start on right-hand pages. You shift effortlessly from verso to recto as you go, but there is little doubt that the opposite page in either case provides context. The left-hand page often reflects a choice to keep going; the right-hand page, when you’re tired, may be the page you end on. Memory has more time to sink in as the pages partner. The single screen of the e-reader eliminates the partnership of left and right. You only have the device cyclops staring at you. Flipping twice on an e-reader for every spread surely slows you down, as well as depriving you of memory assistance.
- Paper – Paper choices are part of book design. Do you want a deckle-edge? Acid-free? Cheap pulp? Each choice provides a tangible message about the type of book it is and its place in the world. Paper also provides context. The onion skin of a Bible crinkles differently, turns differently, and is experienced differently than the thick deckled creamy paper of a fine literary novel. Each help you remember something. Each provides context. The slick, hard surface of your e-reader and the uniform screen color make every content experience much like any other.
- Smell – Books smell. They smell good, mostly, but they smell. Walk into a second-hand bookstore, and you smell that slow fire of paper burning in acid. Did the book smell slightly of adhesive? Of coating chemicals? Of island air? More context. E-readers don’t smell. They are sanitized of such things.
A story in TIME about these issues quotes Jakob Nielsen reflecting on the loss of landmarks and temporal touchstones:
Human short-term memory is extremely volatile and weak. That’s why there’s a huge benefit from being able to glance [across a page or two] and see [everything] simultaneously. Even though the eye can only see one thing at a time, it moves so fast that for all practical purposes, it can see [the pages] and can interrelate the material and understand it more.
For those of us with physical bookshelves full of our old friends, the spatial issue is significant. Moving house is traumatic for bibliophiles for this precise reason — that book was in the upper-left of the third bookshelf before; where is it now?
In a study from 2011, Kate Garland and colleagues found that print readers understood topics more quickly, had more accessible retention (it just “came to them” when asked), and worked through material more quickly. However, digital readers caught up to them ultimately in nearly every way, with recall being the most elusive.
Yet, despite these very real differences, “big paper” is in trouble, as a recent article in Forbes outlines:
We’re coming off paper as an information culture. Big Paper. Paper as a universal foundation for anything to do with information. . . . It is simply taking time to swap the stuff out. In the process, we are realizing that there isn’t just one replacement for paper. There are many.
The rapid adoption of tablets like the iPad, the reliance on smartphones for information consumption, and the end of the printed Encyclopedia Britannica all signal that the age of “big paper” is coming to an end. However, we seem to be trading personal knowledge for personal scope, local memory spaces for a memory ecosystem, and rapid learning for unfocused, slower learning.
But don’t worry. You read this on a screen. You won’t remember a thing.