Paper or Pixels: The Great Debate

For someone who loves reading as much as I do, the inevitable question always is: do you prefer print books or e-books? A recent study, published in The Los Angeles Times, found that 92% of college students overwhelmingly favoured pages to screens when asked about their reading preferences. University linguistics professor Naomi S. Baron, author of Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World, quizzed 300 students across the United States, Slovakia, Japan and Germany, with the result of her study incontrovertibly confirming that books are still a solid fixture in our modern world. For an era increasingly termed as the ‘Digital Age’ that is both humbling and, quite frankly, astounding.

Like many people, I come down somewhere in the middle of this debate: I own an e-reader and I also own a large collection of print books. To those staunch against either end, this makes me somewhat of a blasphemer (whoopsie); on the other hand it also gives me the ability to make a fair, informed choice — and, like 92% of students asked, I have to say that I also prefer the experience of pages to screen. What this reveals about my own identity as a graduate I don’t know: we can all appreciate that books are FAR easier to annotate for an upcoming essay (oh, God, more blasphemy!). Maybe, therefore,  Baron’s survey should have included a non-academic based cross-section as well.

books v e readers

Yet, without dismissing e-readers entirely, they do boast a few distinct advantages. In terms of holidaying, commute and just general convenience, it’s never a bad thing to have fifty plus novels to hand which, collectively, weigh less than your average 100-page paperback. If you ever want to find out the true collaborative weight of books then become a literature student – it’ll endorse your mind and break your back in one. New releases also tend to be slightly cheaper as e-versions that in print, owing to some obvious reduced production costs, which can make the e-reader a saver-savvy choice. And if, like me, you enjoy a good classic then the free books [yes FREE] available to download constitute something close to the Holy Grail. Furthermore, newer models such as the Nook and Kindle Paperwhite have even solved the age-old problem of reading in sunlight/low-light. Drinks all around!

So, if the e-reader is this successful, then how come 92% of students (i.e. people aged 18-25 who have grown up immersed in technology) still preferred the good ol’ paper-printed word?

The answer might be less about the product itself, and more about our integral reaction to different reading mediums. A study, published in The Guardian in 2014, found that readers absorbed fewer details when reading on a Kindle than on paper, and that they were “significantly” worse at recalling when events occurred in a mystery story. A previous study, this time comparing reader response to an upsetting short story on paper and on an iPad, also found that paper readers measured higher in instances of empathy, transportation and immersion compared to their pixelated counterparts. In short then, there was something about the physicality of the humble book, in both studies, which participants responded to more, and which helped reinforce their memory and recall. Good news for students.

Picking up on this trend, Anne Mangen of Norway’s Stavanger University, theorised that:

‘When you read on paper you can sense with your fingers a pile of pages on the left growing, and shrinking on the right. You have the tactile sense of progress, in addition to the visual … [The difference for Kindle readers] might have something to do with the fact that the fixity of a text on paper, and this very gradual unfolding of paper as you progress through a story, is some kind of sensory offload, supporting the visual sense of progress when you’re reading’

The reason why 92% of students (and this graduate included) preferred print books then, may be because books are doing something that e-readers simply fail to. They give us a tangible sense of our own progress: of time repaid by measurable centimetres and inches, and their very physicality apparently helps to fortify what we have read anyway.

main_kindle_480I can’t be the only one who thinks this, but page numbers are incredibly important each time I pick up a book. There is ultimately nothing more satisfying than sitting back and casually (*cough*superiorly) reflecting: I’ve just read a hundred pages. Measuring that milestone between your thumb and index finger, of course, is just the glacé cherry on top of the cake. And, call me overly sentimental or just plain old-fashioned, but being told that you are 50% of the way through a book just doesn’t sell the same thrill and achievement as seeing it for yourself.

With e-readers as well, I also have the morbid fear of a badly punctuated version (and I’ve met with a few). The stringent editing protocols preceding print publication at least give me a reassuring safety net that my enjoyment is not likely to be substantially ruined. Furthermore, the wholesale appearance of print books with their cover images, manufacturing and copyright details, and blurbs convince me to believe I am genuinely reading what I think I’m reading – a constant undermining doubt with e-downloads.

To be frank, I don’t know if e-readers and iPads mark the future of reading, but I’d prefer to hope not. The loss of books would be the loss of a wider tradition, the loss of an art form, and ironically a loss of reality, or at least the materiality of it. And, from the heart of a devoted reader and a writer, I categorically would not like to see the day that libraries become obsolete.

So, while this post has made it clear where I stand (me as in 0.0000001% of the population) what I want to know is, which side of the debate do you come down on? Books or e-readers? Perhaps you don’t come down on either and consider all reading positive irrespective of its form? Perhaps you occupy a complete middle ground? Perhaps you just simply don’t care? Let me know. The internet is also another medium of reading, so how does that effect the overarching debate between pixels and pages? Leave a reply 🙂

paperbackversuskindletablet

Sources used:
* http://www.latimes.com/books/jacketcopy/la-et-jc-92-percent-college-students-prefer-paper-over-pixels-20160208-story.html
* http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/aug/19/readers-absorb-less-kindles-paper-study-plot-ereader-digitisation

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