Paper vs Pixels. Does it matter how we read? Part 2.

Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of

The Book

My daughter, bless her, has to read Great Expectations for college. It’s part of the English curriculum for Year 9 students.

She has low hopes for it.

Not that she dislikes Dickens. She was particularly taken by some gruesomeness in Oliver Twist when she was 11.

But The Books were handed out in class along with instructions.  Read only as far as you’re told, and no further. Then we’ll have questions on each chapter, or section. If you’re a reader, you’ll know how difficult it is to be told you can’t read any further.

It lies on the dresser, calling you, doesn’t it… Reeeeeead me! REEEEEEEEAD ME!

So she has.

And it’s been a fascinating exercise, given our recent questions, watching her read it in book form, then switch to the web searching for answers to the questions she’s been set, then back to the book, then the web.

Straw poll

Last time we ran a completely unscientific poll, results of which are at the bottom. We were poking a stick at an increasingly complex question, that of reading screens vs reading from paper.

Because it was a blunt instrument, it didn’t make an important distinction.

As one of our respondents pointed out (thanks Glen), there is a case to be made for reading with book-like electronic devices instead of books, by separating electronic reading into two, distinct forms. One is the usual online, laptop or monitor-based style. The other is with Kindles and nooks.

The difference

The key difference between online reading and something like a Kindle, is the quality of the lighting.

The argument is, in general, that laptops, smartphones and monitors are backlit, creating a lighting effect that we struggle with, more so than paper. Kindles, nooks and the like have a lighting effect much more akin to traditional paper, making them easier to read than online text.

Eye strain is a problem with the lighting on backlit devices, and this is not really an issue with reading devices. Moreover, there is increasing preference for these over paper and ink. Some claim that the ease, huge storage and accessibility of them will make them ubiquitous. And because books can be so cheap, we might even read more.

As the quality of these devices improves, and the reader experience improves along with it, it’s conceivable that the differences will be negligible and they will replace books in many contexts.

But even for reading devices there are some differences, too. So what we want to do then, is put a little thinking around our poll, and see where we get to.

By the way, there’s a lot to say. I’ll break it up into separate posts although they really should be read together. However, this is already getting long…

So a little context, some brain information, and then into the material proper.

A little reminder from last time

Back in the day, books didn’t exist and, like any other tool, we’ve learned to use them. Reading doesn’t come naturally, or easily in some cases, and although we now expect kids to learn to read at home and school, it’s a skill that is only a few hundred years old for most people. Yes, reading and writing is older than that, but not for most people, and not as an expectation of most kids.

We can date reading as a skill for the general populace only from well after Gutenberg in the mid-fifteenth century when books became more readily available. Even then, they were expensive. Now we consider it a basic educational right and skill. It begins with knowing which way up we hold a book, which is the front and back, and how we turn pages. They’re all things to learn, as with this kid.

Books and brains

For the brain though, the book is just a thing, as much as a cow, or a table. How words look on a page is a somewhat arbitrary image, as are letters.

While it’s true that some letters may have once looked like something from daily life and were simply re-purposed, that isn’t really true anymore. The capital ‘A’ for example, Greek Alpha, comes from Aleph, which came originally from a stylized ox-head. You can see it from left to right, Egyptian, Phoenician, Greek and Roman, which we use in English.

For our brains, the capital ‘A’ is just three straight lines. It has no connection at all to oxen.  Similarly, other letters are lines and curves.

Some brain cells are dedicated to identifying curves, lines, edges and particular angles. That’s all those brain cells do, and they help us identify, among other things, letters.

When we put a certain set of lines and curves together, we end up with a word, and it’s the meaning we’ve attached to the set of lines and curves that’s relevant for us. One of the great things about language is that it is generally an abstract representation of real or imagined things, and that’s part of what makes language so versatile.

When we put all these abstractions of curves, lines and words on a page, the brain sees both a collection of small images, and an overall representation of the page. Call it the wood and the trees. 

Extracting the meaning from that collection of things is what we call reading.

Finding where you are

67% of you said you can find where you left off more easily in a book, than electronically. Research would, in the main, support you.

In seeing the wood and the trees, the brain takes a number of markers about location from these images.  Consequently, when trying to remember where you’re up to, it’s often easier to remember where on the page you were, than the page number. And how often have you flipped through pages looking for the image on the top right corner of the left hand page. Maybe you’ve heard people say “I can see it on the page…” as they struggle to remember which page.

Additionally, there are more landmarks with books.

For a kick off, there are two pages, left and right, each with four corners, which provide useful, physical anchor points for the brain, along with the page numbers, even on one side and odd on the other.

Then there’s the depth of the pages you’ve already turned which acts as another landmark. “I’m about two-thirds through” is a rough and ready guide to where you’re up to. A friend of mine, an architect, was quirky to watch when he used this while navigating a heavy textbook. When remembering where something was, he knew it as 5/8 of an inch from the start, which he’d measure with his thumb!

A reader is always the same thickness to hold, no matter how many pages you’ve read.

Together, these features give the book a feel not yet matched by electronic devices. Swiping isn’t the same as turning a page (see the video) and being able to hold open two or three pages with a finger in each spot adds a tactility not achievable with a reader.

It’s certainly easier to flip back and forth to different pages in a book than in a reader, which is essentially a long scroll of same looking material, unlike the pages in a book. Online, we can bookmark, or flick between windows, but this still isn’t as effective as a book.

All up, books still have it for the topographical strengths they maintain.

So here’s the take home bit

In terms of the brain finding its way around, and for remembering where you’re up to and where information is, books are, still, clearly ahead of readers, and certainly online.

And once we’ve learned how, reading is a skill we never lose, including for people with dementia.

There are other advantages too. More on that next post

Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat

Book topography

What do you think?

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1. What is your age?

18 to 24      10%

25 to 34      37%

35 to 44      27%

45 to 54      17%

55 to 64      6%

65 to 74      3%

2. Are you male or female? 69% female

3. In general, do you prefer reading from paper or electronically? 63% paper

4. For more complex material, do you prefer to read electronically or on paper? 83% paper

5. Do you find you are more easily distracted when reading from paper, or electronically? 80% electronically

6. Do you find you are more able to remember what you’ve read from paper, or electronically? 72% paper

7. Do you spend more time reading from paper, or electronically? 73% electronically

8. Are you more likely to read an indexed footnote on a page or a hyperlink from a screen? 53% hyperlink

9. Do you believe it’s easier to find where you left off on paper, or electronically? 67% paper


About brendonbclark

Hi, I’m Brendon, but people usually call me B. I’ve a Masters degree in psychology, postgraduate qualification in mental health, and qualifications in counselling, professional supervision and adult education. I consult, speak and blog. Join me, you can subscribe for free.
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