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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.

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.

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30 Thoughts on "Speed and Retention — Are e-Readers Slower and More Forgetful?"

Interesting stuff. Since getting my Kindle, I’m finding it increasingly hard to justify buying physical books — they just seem to wasteful. (And, yes, I am one of those people where every room in the house has a couple of packed bookshelves — we own thousands of books.)

I’m still buying physical books occasionally, but mostly only when a second-hand copy is the quickest and cheapest way of getting what I want. (I bet more books are sold in the UK for £2.76 these days than at any other price.)

Some of the matters you raise could be fixed easily enough. For example, instead of showing a randomly chosen picture from its smallish set when it’s turned off, the Kindle should show the cover image of whatever book you were reading last.

Others are not so easily addressed.

I think the left/right one is a bit of a red herring. If we’d been bought up on e-readers, that additional complication would seem terribly silly and unnecessary to us. But if people want it, it shouldn’t be hard to add a two-pages-at-a-time landscape mode to the firmware.

  • Mike Taylor
  • Mar 21, 2012, 6:13 AM

And as writing was invented people probably fretted about the loss of memory faculties developed from the oral passage of knowledge. But we learnt new signifiers associate with hieroglyphs on stone. Then scribbles on scrolls. Then print in books.

And we will learn new signifiers in the new world. Human memory, indeed the human brain, is remarkably plastic over the generations. We might struggle in the transition; or successors likely won’t even recall there was a problem.

  • Martin
  • Mar 21, 2012, 6:14 AM

People did fret about the loss of memory faculties as writing emerged. But I think this is different. This isn’t that kind of “the sky is falling” concern but a moderated concern based on emerging evidence that speed, recall, and information retention are somewhat compromised, for a short time. For me, the sanitized e-reading experience does create problems with recall. I have wicked good recall from print — I can remember the book, the depth of read, and the relative page position for passages and general information. I know where in my Pelican Shakespeare “Coriolanus” is. But heaven help me to find it in an e-book. I will, but it will take longer, and I won’t remember “where” it was, because there is no “where.”

  • Kent Anderson
  • Mar 21, 2012, 7:26 AM

“People did fret about the loss of memory faculties as writing emerged”? It’s a famous passage by Plato, in his Phaidros (274d–275b), written of course, or we wouldn’t know it. And it’s not based on empirical evidence.

  • jge
  • Mar 21, 2012, 9:32 AM

Lest we forget, Plato was portraying the worry about “forgetfulness” as coming from Socrates.

  • Kent Anderson
  • Mar 21, 2012, 9:51 AM

The nice thing about (most) eReaders is that you can actually search the text for words or phrases, which is something I really like. Also, on mine (a Kindle), I can highlight certain passages and later view all the highlighted passages, click on one of them, if desired, and be taken to that page.

  • Alexandra Landers
  • Mar 21, 2012, 2:40 PM

Doh. I meant to write: ‘our successors’ ie future generations.

That written, Rachel nicely demonstrates the point below. New signifiers are learnt.

  • Martin
  • Mar 21, 2012, 12:01 PM

Four centuries ago, there probably was some monk saying, “I just don’t like this new-fangled movable type. The old scrolls were so much better.”

  • Ken Lanfear
  • Mar 21, 2012, 9:33 PM

I’m a big fan of e-readers, but I also use them and know that there are differences. I do think it’s harder to remember things read in e-reading environments. That’s not a reactionary condemnation, just a statement. The overall pro-con balance is more complex.

  • Kent Anderson
  • Mar 21, 2012, 9:54 PM

As a parallel, I love my iPod and the way it’s changed the way I listen to music. But at the same time, I can admit that mp3 is a lower quality format than that of the CD or the LP.

  • David Crotty
  • Mar 21, 2012, 10:01 PM

Well, that’s conflating format with reproduction. Yes, a CD is better quality than an MP3, which is lossy; but there’s no reason you can’t listen to music encoded with a lossless codec such as FLAC on your personal digital music player. The point here, I think, is that even if you did that (and in practice I’m not really able to hear the difference between lossless and a 192kbps MP3), then it’s still a different experience. I think an MP3 playing on a stero in a living room is much more like a CD playing on that stereo than it is like that MP3 on an iPod (or even FLAC on an iPod).

  • Mike Taylor
  • Mar 22, 2012, 6:56 AM

If I use something like Apple’s lossless format then I use more space and lose the convenience offered by the device (“your entire music library in your pocket” and all that). But I don’t think it’s unfair to bring format in here–it’s part of the technology. And with each new technology, we make tradeoffs. DVDs offer a better picture than VHS but you lose the ability to record. A DVR is better for recording than VHS but you lose portability and you can’t lend a friend a tape of the show he missed. If a technology succeeds, it does so because the new advantages offered outweigh the disadvantages as compared with the previous technology.

Listening to live music has much better sound quality than that offered by the LP, CD or MP3. But it certainly lacks their convenience. For most eReaders, we are trading off resolution and physical cues (and often dealing with a poor interface) but we’re gaining convenience, search and other benefits that in the long run likely outweigh the tradeoff.

  • David Crotty
  • Mar 22, 2012, 7:10 AM

You might look into the excellent lesser-known format called Ogg Vorbis; it has a much better compression algorithm, so that a near-lossless quality ogg file is only around twice the size of a 128kbps mp3. The one difficulty is that many players still don’t support Ogg, so a person has to pick a player that either can play it, or one that (like the iPod family) is supported by the open-source Rockbox firmware as it includes ogg support.

(I reached your blog entry through a link over at The Digital Reader blog’s “Morning Coffee” post. Going to comment on the actual blog entry in a moment…)

  • Xyzzy
  • Mar 23, 2012, 3:51 AM

Ogg is one of those points where you lose the mainstream customer. Sure, one could use an obscure format that has entirely failed to gain traction in the marketplace (Betamax was also of superior quality to VHS). But for most people it’s a non-starter. I’m not going to re-encode my 200+ GB of music into a new format, and if I go Ogg only, I lose one of the main benefits of the iPod, the ease of purchase of music from iTunes, Amazon and eMusic.

Asking the average person to replace the firmware on their iPod is a bit like telling someone they can just jailbreak their iPhone or root their Nook. If you have to do all that extra work, then the product is no longer as convenient or good as it aims to be.

  • David Crotty
  • Mar 23, 2012, 11:59 AM

When you look at the differences between paper and electronic, I wonder what proportion of the differences that are considered disadvantages for electronic are intrinsically worse than their paper equivalent, and what proportion have a negative effect only because they’re different from what people are used to? To find that out, we’ll need to do new studies in a decade or so, using people who grew up reading only e-books, and see whether and how their performance degrades when they are asked to read paper.

  • Mike Taylor
  • Mar 22, 2012, 3:52 AM

Positional memory is likely one of the reasons for the continued use (dominance?) of the pdf format for research papers. Reading the online html version presents a continous stretch of text. Reading the pdf version, I find it easier to remember specific statements and figures from their position (it was about halfway through the paper at the top of the left column on the page). At least that’s how my brain works.

As for speed, how much of this is due to resolution? Ink on paper is a much higher resolution medium than most screens, hence it’s likely faster to read. Don’t forget tests have shown that black text on white background is the fastest read, so those older eInk screens that were grey on grey may be slowing you down as well.

  • David Crotty
  • Mar 21, 2012, 7:16 AM

I keep stock of my Kindle reading placement by percentages now instead of pagenumbering: a bit of a shift at first, but easily gotten used to. I now know that a passage of note was at 73%, or about 3/4 of the “% read” bar, instead of around page 225, or 3/4 of the book through, and most e-readers allow for easy bookmarking of this too. The Kindle is lighter than most of the tomes I read and thus my wrists are spared the strain. Switching back to a previous page is only a buttonclick away and I use this regularly when I’ve lost the train of thought. I also immediately after finishing a Kindle book look at the cover again, the contents, and then browse to Goodreads, to rate the book, leave a personal review, and read the other reviews/discussions if I found the book interesting enough. This provides a much more indepth book experience than putting it on my shelve to gather dust without having anyone to talk to it. I personally have found that the e-era has vastly widened my exploration of the text.

  • Rachel
  • Mar 21, 2012, 9:50 AM

Some shifting is natural and will become second nature to us, as Rachel suggests with tracking reading placement by percentages. But that is still a visual measure, while the concerns noted in the post were that some of the measures we use to help our memory are *physical* — like the weight of the book. For instance, I will remember Stephen King’s 11/22/63 differently than I’ll remember Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife because *in part* because there was such a dramatic difference in weight.

  • Stephanie
  • Mar 22, 2012, 10:48 AM

I guess I just can’t take much stock in this physical weight change or paper texture or font between books making any difference. Many (many many) novels (any serialisation published in a publisher’s standard format – like Penguin – etc) or journals are the same size and weight and I still manage to make distinctions between one text to other. I’m sure I’ll remember a King novel differently from a Obreht’s because they are completely different genres with completely different writing styles… It’s how engaged I am in the text that either makes me remember or forget it, so I’m not worried about the statistics above, which don’t take into account the advantages of e-text. I think people can be much more informed and educated than they ever were before because of electronica – if they choose to be of course. Maybe I’m just saying: Don’t judge a book by its cover.

  • Rachel
  • Mar 23, 2012, 8:08 AM

For those of us older readers who are challenged by the trend in book design of scholarly books to make footnotes so small as to be virtually illegible, the ability of e-reading devices to enlarge text size is a nice feature.

As for jackets, remember that libraries (especially academic libraries) typically discard jackets before shelving books, so library users are already deprived of this visual cue.

Regarding the two-page spread, it is one of the features that attracted me to the iPad over other e-reading devices. I do still like to “flip” pages, even if it is done electronically.

  • Sandy Thatcher
  • Mar 21, 2012, 6:53 PM

If you didn’t see it, you should check this post out — it references an actual scientific/academic study, which TIME’s article didn’t:
The Digital Reader: TIME asks ‘do ebooks make it harder to recall what you just read?’

Personally, my speed has gradually improved since switching to e-readers a couple of years ago; I can recall elements like where in the book things occurred and the cover art fairly easily provided the reader includes it somewhere on their display. I also don’t feel that tapping or using a button is more mentally strenuous or distracting than moving a page (that’s a very odd assertion)… Then again, even though I’m in my mid-30s, I’ve been working with long digital texts since writing my first novel in my mid-teens, using computers since I was around 3, and I have a very strong synaesthetic memory that lets me experience the book structure, time of month/year I read a particular part of a book, etc. as sensory elements.

Most of the assertions in the TIME article you linked to seem like they’d be heavily influenced by secondary factors, like the mental/visual fatigue many experience from using a LCD (that isn’t an issue with a monochrome e-reader), how experienced the students were with the software they were using to read the text, whether the computer offered other distractions or the environment is similar to the OS they’re used to surfing the Internet with, so on and so forth. IOW, it didn’t feel like a very rigorously scientific set of studies.

For what it’s worth, I do prefer paper for certain things, like editing essays or fiction… I don’t feel that digital is invariably better, just that articles like the one in TIME tend to mix up an approach being comfortable or quicker due to familiarity with it being inherently superior, and that blanket statements based on someone’s experience (i.e. paper being less mentally taxing) are sloppy journalism on their part.

  • Xyzzy
  • Mar 23, 2012, 6:07 AM

Sounds like the writer is saying that “real” books are better because they feel and smell like “real” books. As a reader for the best part of 50 years, I can honestly say that I don’t find any difference between reading my Kindle, and any one of my “real” books. And I have one room in my house that is literally wall to wall books, with another 30 feet of shelving in my spare bedroom full of books

  • John McC
  • Mar 25, 2012, 3:43 AM

What’s being said is that there may be a cost to retention and information acquisition because so many landmarks and sensory aspects of reading are missing with e-books. Personally, I find the conveniences of e-reading to outweigh those costs, but we need to acknowledge they may exist. Of course, if you’d read this in print, you may have gleaned more from the first reading.

  • Kent Anderson
  • Mar 25, 2012, 7:34 AM

Thank you, very interesting. I am a professional book editor and maker of books for academic publishers. I work with a hybrid screen/paper workflow to give me the power of search/replace with the solidity of reading on paper. I believe I can’t offer publishers proper quality by reading on screen. Reading/retention research is a scientific field of study predicated on models of cognition; I am guessing most of the discussion pro/con e-readers is subjective and anecdotal. That’s not a problem, because there is no ‘correct’ model for how we understand.

My groatsworth of wisdom on this is that the haptic book (codex) is part of a field of cognition that changed when e-readers were invented. The closest analogy is the change in painting away from representationalism when photography was invented. Industrial production changed our relation to the art object in a way that both produced Morris’s historicist arts-and-crafts movement and the radically transcendental conceptualism of Marcel Duchamp. In other words, books are not changing but we perceive them as becoming more physical, tactile, smelly … Clearly e-readers seek different ends: a basic Kindle relies on the indestructibility of alphabetic information, while the iPad aspires to massive sensory input overload, leaving mere letters behind in favour of images, sounds, movement and multimodality.

I blog weekly on these things at (for example)

  • Propagandum
  • Mar 28, 2012, 10:08 AM

As a piece of hardware, the human brain has not been upgraded for 100,000 years. Every time a new platform emerges (from oral traditions to writing, to printing, then to computers), the brain strains to adapt. Try to play online games with a Pentium CPU and 256mb RAM, the computer will either overheat or refuse to work. The rusty hardware simply cannot handle the new software. Our brains, while malleable to a certain extent, is not equipped to learn and retain knowledge primarily through the digital platform. I am praying and waiting on God to give me an upgraded brain.

  • OEM
  • Sep 8, 2012, 11:21 AM

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