Books versus E-readers


Books vs ereaderBack in February, Naomi Baron wrote a piece calledReading on-screen versus on paper,” in which she compared the two reading experiences: printed books and e-readers in five areas:

  • Cost
  • Container vs content
  • Environmental impact
  • Quality of screens
  • Concentration

Baron actually looks at these as true-or-false questions, not really comparisons. She doesn’t address issues like aesthetics, tactile sense or emotional response, or the relative value of hypertext to content, nor does she tread into the science and ergonomics of reading. For that, you have to look elsewhere. Which, of course, I did.

First let me state that it is not really an us-vs-them situation: e-readers vs printed books. Both technologies co-exist quite comfortably and each has its own merits. Neither will displace the other, and our civilization cannot survive with only digital content.*

Several Pew Research studies have shown that the number of Americans owning e-readers is still modest (24 percent by the end of 2013 but 32 percent by Jan. 2014; compared with tablet ownership which was at 42 percent by 2014) and the number of adults who had read an e-book within the previous year was a mere 28 percent with only 4 percent reading e-books exclusively (up to 5 percent by 2014). That, however, is a slowly growing figure.**

Reading has been studied scientifically for years. The movement of the eye when reading, the effect of typeface, line length, contrast between page and ink, word size, punctuation… All play into readability. And, we’re learning, so do screen refresh rates, back lighting, flicker and screen clarity.

Computer screens flicker in ways that, while we cannot always discern consciously, may affect our reading. Some studies have suggested that they impair reading ability and cause eyestrain. While e-readers also flicker, they do so much faster than the standard 60 Hz of the computer screen refresh rate. As this excerpt from a New York Times piece notes, e-readers don’t have a noticeable flicker:

When we read, Dr. Hedge explained, a series of ocular muscles jump around and can cause strain, regardless of whether we are looking at pixels or paper. “While you’re reading, your eyes make about 10,000 movements an hour. It’s important to take a step back every 20 minutes and let your eyes rest,” he said.
Today’s screens are definitely less tiring to look at than older displays, which refreshed the image much less frequently, causing a flicker. Carl Taussig, director of Hewlett-Packard‘s Information Surfaces Lab, said the 120 Hz refresh rate typical of modern screens is much quicker than our eyes can even see.
“The new LCDs don’t affect your eyes,” Mr. Taussig said. “Today’s screens update every eight milliseconds, whereas the human eye is moving at a speed between 10 and 30 milliseconds.”

Perhaps the narrow width of the e-reader screen also means any flicker would not be as noticeable as on a wider screen.

On the positive side, the enhanced contrast of a backlit e-reader screen can make text more legible. And the ability to increase text size helps people with vision impairment or simply bad eyesight.

I have some personal experience with this: my mother – a voracious reader – developed macular degeneration in her final years, which prevented her from reading even large-prints books without difficulty. However, she was able to read a Kobo because it allowed her to enlarge the type enough for it to be clear. She continued to use hers until just before her death, at age 95.

A piece on Lifehacker included this comment from Joe Croft, co-founder and EVP of Research Design and Development at Gunnar, which makes specialty glasses, about some of the technical aspects to be considered:

Glare and visual “noise”: Most tablets (e.g. iPad) have a glossy screen. I believe most e-ink screens are optimized for a matte screen, which allows our eyes to relax in a more natural state, but does not address some of the other issues associated with eye strain, such as distance and reduced blink rate.
Quality of light: Our eyes are designed to process natural, reflected light better than self-illuminated objects (i.e. artificial light). E-Ink wins in this regard and can help reduce strain when compared to LCD screens.

But let’s not be complacent. Reading on paper and screen have different psychological and emotional effects, as a piece on the Public Library Association site notes (emphasis added):

According to a recent Scientific American article, reading paper versus electronic material makes a difference when it comes to memory and learning. In digital format, readers tend to skim, looking for keywords. As a result the full content of the material is often lost.
Screen reading takes more mental energy thereby leaving less for actual content retention. Students who read text via a computer screen did a little bit worse on a reading comprehension test than those students who used actual textbooks. During the test, they were able to look back at their textbooks for answers. The students who used actual textbooks retained not only more information but memory as to where that information was located.
Also, “seeing” only a page or two at a time rather than the whole book is disorienting to the reader. Although most e-readers have a digital readout somewhere on the screen of the readers progress within the book, that’s not enough. To physically hold the book and flip through individual pages makes the reader feel more grounded to the experience than a simple readout of her progress on the screen. When readers are grounded to the experience, material is more likely to be remembered.

Another consideration is the conflation of terms. While I think of e-readers and tablets as separate technologies, some reports blend them together or ignore one for the other. That caused some confusion when a recent study showed ‘e-readers’ caused problems with sleep. But that was clarified in this piece on Gigaom as relating to tablets and smartphones, not e-ink technology:

The key problem with this study and the more alarmist stories that followed, is that when it says “e-reader”, it means “Apple iPad”. An iPad at full brightness, no less. When I hear “e-reader”, I tend to think “dedicated e-reader” – an e-ink device without a backlit screen — rather than a multi-purpose tablet. And there’s a big difference.
The screens of devices such as tablets and smartphones have long been known to emit short-wavelength light, also known as blue light. All light can suppress the secretion of melatonin – the hormone that controls our day-night cycles – in the evening and night-time, but blue light has a particularly pronounced effect and previous studies have shown that it’s best avoided at night.

It also adds,

Charles Czeisler, director of the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School, who co-authored the study, told the Washington Post that the “standard Kindle” would provide an exception to the study’s findings as it does not emit light and was more like reading a paper book.

It seems e-readers are unlikely to reach the level of saturation that print has, and I suspect the number of people who read on them, or even on tablets, exclusively will remain relatively low. The experience of reading a printed book is still superior and offers advantages for memory and engagement. However, they are a complementary technology and many of us readers use both print and e-ink formats for reading.


* Once upon a time, the wealth of a person was measured by the size of their library, because books were notoriously expensive and every one was copied by hand. When printing was automated, that changed so that the personal library came to reflect the culture of a person, their wisdom, as well as their standing in the community. It still does. You can tell a huge amount about a person by simply looking at the number of books and their titles in their library.
** Pew Research found that 76% of American adults read a book in some format during the year. The typical American adult read (or listened to) 5 books (the median) in the past year: half of American adults read more than 5 books and half read fewer (the average was 12). I personally don’t believe audio-books should be counted in statistics about reading.

A Globe and Mail story says Canadians buy more than a million books each week. A 2005 government survey found 54% of Canadians read every day, and read an average 17 books a year (no median was reported) and read an average of 4.5 hours a week. This was followed in 2008 by an Ipsos Reid survey that showed that Canadians were reading less than before.

One of the most depressing statements I’ve ever read was, “…nearly a third of adults (31 per cent) across the country didn’t read a single book for pleasure in all of 2007.” However, those who continued to read were reading more: “…the 69 per cent of Canadians who were reading in 2007 did so voraciously, with the average person in that group having dug into 20 books over the course of the year.” So I suppose there is some good news in that.

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  1. Pingback: Screens vs. Books: How Does Technology Impact Literacy? – Thought

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