How Do You Read? Ebook or Paper?


I have always read avidly, as much as my time permitted. Libraries are invaluable, because I couldn’t afford my reading habit without them.

My husband gave me a Nook Color e-reader for Christmas 2010. I was skeptical when I opened the box. I wasn’t sure I wanted to switch to ebooks. But overnight, I was hooked. My reading addiction shifted seamlessly from paper to digital.

Of course, it helped that just as I received my Nook, the Mid-Continent Public Library made ebooks available to their patrons. A whole library at my fingertips! I didn’t even have to drive to the nearest branch.

Scientific American published an article on April 11, 2013, entitled The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens, by Ferris Jabr, that discusses the differences between reading on paper and on screens.

150547708The article begins with a description of a toddler who manipulated a tablet computer with ease, then tried to pinch and swipe the pages of a paper book. I, too, have found myself trying to turn the page of a paper book by tapping the screen, or even tapping a word on the paper page to look up its definition.

The article asks how the technology we use to read changes the way we read, how reading on screens differs from reading paper. Do we read as thoroughly? Do we retain the information as well?

According to Scientific American, the studies that have examined these questions show changing results over time. Before 1992, studies found that people read more slowly on screens; more recent studies have split results.

But many people still report that they miss the feeling of paper in their hands as they read digital books, that they remember less of what they read on screens, and that it takes more mental effort to read ebooks.

I was fascinated by the Scientific American article’s description of the neurology of reading. Apparently, we perceive letters as physical objects. We read by weaving together the brain circuits devoted to spoken language, motor coordination, and vision – a relatively new ability in human development.

Charlotte's webWe also view a page of text as topography, much like we would view a map or a panoramic landscape. Haven’t you found yourself trying to remember how far through a book or where on the page a particular sentence or topic was covered? I always remember the large picture of the spider in Charlotte’s Web, so I know which page to skip when I read that book.

Paper books have more reliable topography than ebooks. In digital books the location of text varies as the reader changes font size or style, or from one e-reading device to another (smartphone and tablet, for example).

I also miss knowing instinctively how far I am through a book by the weight of what’s in my left hand and what’s in my right hand. With ebooks, I can find out what percentage of the book I’ve read with a simple tap on the screen, but it isn’t the same.

The research also shows that the difference in reading comprehension between what is read on paper and on screen is small, but the difference in retention of the information may be greater. Moreover, knowing and internalizing the information may be easier with paper.

When I want to really learn what I am reading, I prefer hard copy to digital formats. I highlight text when I’m trying to learn the information, and the highlighting function in ebooks is not easy to use. The physical and mental sensations of first reading text, then re-reading as I highlight with a neon marker, make it much easier to imprint the information on my brain. I often print out a digital article to highlight when I want to absorb and retain its contents.

I also am more easily distracted when I’m reading on screen than on paper. It’s too easy to switch to another book on my Nook, or surf the web or check email when all these applications and sources are available with a few clicks or taps.

I don’t know whether later generations will learn more easily when they read digitally, or whether e-reading devices will change to better duplicate the tactile experience of reading on paper. For now, I will split my time between paper and screen.

Nook HD imageBut don’t take my Nook away!

I love setting my e-reader (now upgraded to a Nook HD) to night mode and reading in the dark in bed. For novels that are pure escape, where I have no need to retain what I’m reading, it’s a decadent pleasure of the twenty-first century. Of course, it also means I sleep less.

Which do you prefer – reading on paper or on screen?

Posted in Philosophy, Technology, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , .


  1. Until print book prices lower, I’m going to keep buying digital (if it’s reasonably priced, that is). But I read using the Kindle app on my Surface and prefer it this way because I can lay in whatever position I want without having to worry about how to hold the book. Obviously I grew up with print books, but I’m not going to wax nostalgic over the weight of a paperback when its inconvenience for me outweighs the conveniences of digital. I love that I can buy books like candy. With print, I’d buy a book a month, but with digital, especially self-pubbed and indy books, I can buy one or two books a week. I don’t go to libraries because I’m never good about turning in books on time, and plus my local library jumped the price to a dollar every day a book is late. Digital also reads more smoothly to me because it is such a flat screen. Now the Kindle app does have its flaws for any book, but most books it works fine with. I had a Kindle once, but the screen got heat-damaged, which is a flaw in technology, but I needed a Surface anyway for portability and ease of use.

    • The neat thing about getting digital books from the library is that they get returned automatically — you can’t keep them past their due date. Like you, I read a couple of books a week, so I love the digital downloads. I have subscriptions with three libraries, and my challenge is not to put so many on hold that they all arrive for my Nook at once!
      Thanks for commenting.

  2. Paper, definitely. My Nook is nice but I’m a diehard for hardcopy books. 😉 Regarding the topography and how far one is along in a book, that is what I miss to when reading ebooks.

  3. I enjoy reading paper books. I am oddly in love with reading and by that I mean I enjoy sleeping with my books. I love the texture, smell, and feel of the book. I do love my nook and kindle but I will always love hardcopy/paper books more. I don’t see myself fully committing to digital e-readers.

  4. This is interesting information. From what I’ve learned with my students as I teach online, digital reading doesn’t seem to stick in the same way. I highlight, change font colors in my announcements or homework sheet, just to help them stop or refocus on important information.Much of my teaching seems to revolve around how to teach reading again when so much of their world is digital.

    However, said that, I also have a new tablet. We bought the Nexus in order to have easier maps to see while traveling – and that was a blessing when we were turned around in New Orleans! And I’ve begun reading an ebook and learned to highlight, but now I have so many highlights with the book, it’s a challenge to find the one I want to re-read! But then, I have so many hardcover books, it’s sometimes hard to find one or the other in the library. But I also take the tablet to bed and read for fun – at the moment, a fantasy/hero novel that was plugged some years back in the NY Times as well written (one of the benefits of clearing out old folders) – and it is.

    i.e. no doubt, it depends on how you read. I often flip back and forth in a book, going back to see how the author set up a scene or idea several pages back. Not as easy to do on the tablet. However, I now have a copy of Alice in Wonderland that came with the tablet. I haven’t read that in years! Nor do I have a hard copy. Now I have several books in the tablet and that’s SO much easier to carry than a stack.

    I don’t expect hard cover books will disappear anytime soon regardless of what the media seems to think, but fifty years from now? A hundred? Anyone’s guess.

    Great research! Thank you.

  5. Since I’ve become an ereader bigot, I find your article quite interesting. I’m pleased you point out some of the ereader benefits. I wasn’t aware of the reading comprehension studies. Not gifted with a fly-paper mind, I don’t see any difference.

    The book topography discussion is interesting. I faintly recall flipping through a book and finding something, knowing exactly where it was on the page and approximate book depth – when I read on paper. The Ereader search capability has obviated the need, since it works so much more quickly. Will my brain power wither without that exercise? Perhaps the time saved will allow me to take classes to exercise the brain in more useful ways.

    With your voracious appetite for books, console yourself with the realization that you’ve probably saved half a rain forest.

    • Mike, I do think about saving the rain forest (occasionally). And since most of the time I don’t care about retaining what I read, I’d never give up my ereader.
      Thanks for commenting.

  6. My mom was a librarian so I grew up reading lots of paper books, but I have an ereader now and love it. Here are my top 3 reasons… 1) I can read it in the dark without a reading light, 2) I can take it on vacation and not need to haul several different books with me, 3) It’s great for the gym, because I can read it while on the treadmill or other cardio equipment without having to worry about keeping the pages open.

  7. Reminds me of the old debates we used to have…Coke vs Pepsi!

    The nice thing is that people read! I have heard of some people who will only read on electronic media, others who love their paper. I like both.

    I’d rather read a good book on one than a lousy one on the other. 🙂

  8. I am loving this article as I have a Love of Library post that I have been researching and taking pictures of. I also get SciAm and adored that article which went directly in my drive. I received a 2nd generation Kindle on my birthday last fall, and I can concur with all that you say about physical and electronic books. Unfortunately, this one doesn’t come with a backlighted screen so I end up sleeping under lamp light! 😉
    I have a great need still for holding a book for many reasons but your highlighting is one of the keys for me. I studied the brain and learning processes and the more ‘we interact with the material’ (from my future blog post) ‘the better it is to retain.”
    I have visited your blog so much (being a writer from Missouri), and when I saw the email alert I said aloud to the person I was talking to:”Theresa Hupp” is following me! I usually am smooth, but there are times…;)
    I need to get through my review books before I can check out digital libraries! Well, at least I won’t need the lightbulb to read once the sun comes up again.

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