Jilly: Use It or Lose It

22731667_sDo you prefer to read on paper or digitally? Did you know that our e-reading brain works differently from our traditional reading brain?

I bought my first Kindle five years ago, and it transformed my life overnight. I’d say more than 90% of my fiction purchases since then have been digital, and much as I love print books, I know it’s likely to stay that way, because the practical considerations in favor of e-books are so overwhelming:

Availability: the authors I like to read are typically not stocked by my local bookshops.

Instant gratification: I don’t need a TBR stack to choose from any more. Whatever I feel like reading a particular book, I can buy it there and then from the comfort of my sofa.

Portability: I can fit my whole library in my handbag. These days when I go on holiday I actually have room for clothes in my suitcase.

Storage: chez Jilly, we used to purge our physical books periodically, because otherwise we’d have run out of space in the house. We took about 800 titles to the charity shop earlier this year, and for the first time in living memory our paper books are only one deep on the bookshelves. I doubt we’ll ever need to do this kind of giveaway again.

At the same time, I’ve noticed that most e-books I read don’t stick in my mind the way a physical book does. The look and feel of a book, the title and the author, the flow of the language and even the position of a piece of text on a page, used to lodge in my memory. I’d re-read a novel, get to the end of a page and know already what the words overleaf would be. Now I seem to treat the experience in a more disposable way. Oftentimes the writing doesn’t seem to be so memorable, and I struggle to remember an author or title. Even when I browse the index on my Kindle it doesn’t ring any bells unless I try a sample.

I’ve been assuming my experience is a by-product of old age, but today I decided to ask the interwebs if there was more to it than that, and guess what? Take a look at this article in The Guardian, reporting on academic research by Anne Mangen of Stavanger University. She found that when asked to recall the sequence of plot points in a mystery story, paperback readers performed significantly better than Kindle readers. Scarier still, check out this piece in the Washington Post about the effect of technology on our reading brain.

The story seems to be that our brains are plastic – they adapt continuously. When the written word was invented, we had to learn how to read. Now we are learning how to handle vast quantities of information, and we’re establishing a new default for our mental toolbox, setting ourselves up automatically to sift, skim, sort, search, scan and scroll. As our brains spend most of their day working in a non-linear fashion, over time we lose the ability to read sequentially sentence by sentence. A book has less chance to make a deep and lasting impression.

Maryanne Wolf, a cognitive neuroscientist whose work is quoted in the Washington Post article, says that she hears from University English departments that their students are struggling to read the classics: “The students no longer will or are perhaps incapable of dealing with the convoluted syntax and construction of George Eliot and Henry James.”

Wolf says she is training her own brain to be bi-literate – to work in both a linear and non-linear way. When she discovered that she was unable to concentrate on a Herman Hesse novel after a day of working digitally, she made a conscious decision to spend time away from her screens, reading in traditional fashion. For the first three days she struggled, but within a couple of weeks she re-learned to slow down and read deeply.

I have a few personal takeouts from this:

  • If I have the choice between reading something in digital or physical format, I will make a conscious effort to choose the paper format.
  • If I’m going to buy a book that’s available in physical format and I don’t want it for immediate consumption, I will consider buying the dead tree version.
  • If I find a book or series that’s a keeper and I think I’m likely to re-read it, I will buy a paper copy as well.
  • When I do read digitally, I will make a conscious effort to slow down and try to read in a linear way, as if I was reading a physical book. I will also put my phone away and turn my laptop off while I’m reading.
  • While I’m using my computer, I will try to be mindful of the way I’m working. If I need to browse the internet for information, then I’ll scan and skim and sort and let my brain do its non-linear thing. At times when I do not need to hop and skip (for example, when I’m writing), I will make a concerted effort to stop doing so. I’ve always assumed that a quick scan of my inbox or phone whenever I feel like it is no big deal. Perhaps it is.

What do you think? How bi-literate is your brain? Do you think this is something we should worry about?

17 thoughts on “Jilly: Use It or Lose It

  1. That’s some interesting research, Jilly. I have never really taken to eBooks, the reading experience just never felt the same to me as reading a physical book. Now I have some facts to back up why that is. I’ve read a few things recently in digital format, but only because they were available in no other format or because the digital format was only a few dollars and the physical format was quite high – more than I was willing to risk for an unknown author.

    Personally, since I work on a computer all day long, sifting and sorting information, I much prefer to settle down with a physical book and limited distractions when it’s time for some pleasure reading. Good to know I’m helping my brain be bi-literate this way 🙂

  2. In 1964, Marshall McLuhan published Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, wherein he said “the medium is the message.” He said “a medium affects the society in which it plays a role not only by the content delivered over the medium, but also by the characteristics of the medium itself.” It generated a lot of concern that watching flickering images on a television screen would reshape children’s brain and affect their ability to absorb information.And I’d love to say that hasn’t happened, but with the rise of ADD, I’m not sure that’s true.

    So here we are again.

    I thought the hypothesis that the accumulation of pages on the left actually helps us orient when things happen in a book was especially fascinating.

    On the personal front, my Kindle is physically more comfortable for my hands to hold, especially if the book is large. Also I like the idea of not killing trees. But from now on, if I need to really absorb the material, I’ll stick with paper.

    • Here we are again, indeed, and I do believe that we are affected by the characteristics of a medium as well as the content. I suppose very soon e-books will become the norm and generations to come won’t have a choice of format, but if we are mindful of the benefits of deep reading, maybe we could learn to read the old-fashioned way using the new medium.

  3. I’m at a strange place in my life. My eyes aren’t what they once were, and sometimes it’s hard to read unless I take my glasses off and hold the paper in front of my nose. (Not always, just sometimes.) And . . . I’ve got shelves and shelves of books.

    So, today, I had some choices to make. I wanted to buy Kristan Higgins’ “One of the Guys” — I heard about it when Sarah Wendell mentioned it on an NPR interview. It was significantly cheaper as a Kindle, and when I thought hard about it, I wasn’t sure if it was going to be one of my “forever” books. The gratification was practically instant. The e-book costs more in Japan, and the amazon US site was giving me a run-around. I wound up buying it from Amazon.co.jp. And was shocked that it wasn’t deposited into my library (I think my computer has run out of room!), but I had to read it online.

    I just finished reading it. And, enjoyable as it was, I probably won’t read it again. Too many books, too little time. So, it hit me rather hard to realize — is it worth almost $7 for one reading? I really don’t know. A CD costs more. A movie costs more. And a book takes at least twice as long to consume . . . . But I won’t be able to lend this book out to a friend, I won’t be able to access it on my computer until I clear out my cache. I won’t be able to see the cover on my bookshelf, and briefly relive the highlights of that book.

    I am very conflicted about it.

    But, if a book is going to be a one-and-done read, it does make sense to make it digital. If I read it twice, it might make sense to buy a tree version — because then I’ll have the searchability of the digital, and the advantages of the tree version.

    I won’t be getting rid of my favorite books any time soon. (-: Gotta have something in case an earthquake knocks the power out for a few days. But . . . all books are not created equal. Some do fall in that disposable category.

      • If the book is going to be a one-and-done read, I agree that digital makes sense – probably cheaper, and saves a tree. Just curious – do you know when you buy a book that it’s likely to be a one night stand? I almost always think it’s going to be a forever kind of relationship, though I’m frequently disillusioned 😉

        Free classics – yes, that’s a big thumbs-up for digital. And future classics will probably never slip out of print, and less mainstream authors now have the opportunity to self-publish and the reach to find ‘their’ readers. Lots of good things about the brave new world.

        • To be honest, this is the first time I’ve actually thought about whether it’s going to be forever, or a one-read. My default was paper, and I’d get a digital book only if it was a classic (ie: free), or unavailable in paper (your rec for The Last Hour of Gann, for example).

          I decided yesterday that if I’m just trying a book/new author, I should probably assume it’s a short-term relationship. IF it does turn into a long-term relationship, I don’t mind spending the extra money for a hard copy (the hardest I can find! hard cover) because if I’m reading it twice or three times, the author deserves that money.

          The next Bujold will probably be out on e-ARC a couple of months before the print version, and this time, I will pony up for the e-ARC so I can discuss it with my friends, and I’ll also pay for the hard cover because it’s a Bujold.

          I’m not sure what to do about the next Aaronovitch. I enjoy them a lot. But I have a feeling they are more discussion-type books for me, in which case, being able to search is a great function to have. (And my notes are also searchable! And I grew up trying not to deface books, so it’s much easier to write notes in a digital version.) Also, while I love the British covers, the American covers are absolutely dire and a waste of shelf space. Another point: apparently, you can zoom into the British covers and read the map better. So, intellectually speaking, there are a lot of points for buying those digital.

          But, oh! I love a book. I love just holding it, having the weight in my hands, turning the pages. The chocolate smear from when I had cocoa five years ago, the way it falls open to an often-referenced scene.

  4. I love the ease of access and the lightness of storage of e-books. I always still preferred hard-copies until the last couple years. The print books SUCK with being non-reader friendly. Too crowded, poor spacing, not the best fonts, and often not the best color contrast for reading. It has become difficult to read most regular print. Out of necessity I mostly e-read now, because I can have the font, size, and spacing that works best for me. I don’t think it has caused me to not remember books or plots as well as paper and it has given me the ability to have many old favorites be quickly and easily accessible for a re-read. I love reading!

    • Interesting about the paper book formatting, Penny. I haven’t bought many lately so hadn’t noticed, but I did see a discussion about it on one of the RWA threads by readers who were judging this year’s RITAs. Seems crazy to go to the expense of printing a physical book without taking the time and trouble to format it properly.

      You obviously have the knack of reading deeply on your e-reader. I’m hoping I can learn to do that, since I’m sure most of my future fiction reading will be digital.

  5. Really interesting, Jilly. Just been thinking about whether I retain less from e-books. In one sense, yes, because I agree that sometimes when I scroll through my kindle list, I can’t immediately remember what the story was, but if I go into the book and read a bit, then I generally remember the whole thing. So, perhaps it’s because they don’t look/feel distinct enough when I just look down the list, as opposed to having the physical book in my hand, which instantly brings back memories. So, in my case, I think the information has gone in, it just needs more prompts to access it.

    Perhaps one issue I have with e-books is also the reason I love my kindle – the ability to binge read rather than wait until you’ve been to the shop for the next book does mean that some parts of a whole series can get a little blurry – because your mind hasn’t had the chance to process each book before you’ve gone onto the next one.

    My biggest (only, really) regret about e-books is that I used to enjoy the physical presence of books I had read around my walls – a sort of reading equivalent to the sound track to my life. I miss that, but then my shelves are full, or would be if we ever got round to unpacking the boxes after moving house last November.

    • Binge-reading – that’s an interesting thought. I’m guilty of that with series, and if the main relationship arc develops over multiple books then I will often skim (say) 80% of the story for the 20% (say) relationship. If the rest of the book is engaging, I’ll go back, re-read and fill in the gaps. If not…blurry!

      I wonder if the deluge of super-cheap and free books (a digital phenomenon) also trains readers to skim? If a book is free or 99 cents then why not load up the Kindle, hope for the best but assume the worst, and skip through it at top speed?

  6. This week I’ve read most of the Angie Amalfi mystery series. I started because the cozy mystery website gave them high marks and I could pick up the first seven as an ebay lot on the cheap (the first one was published in the early 90’s). Then I picked up the next five or six from Amazon, also in paperback form. The next two are due here tomorrow.

    Here’s the thing. The last book published so far in the series is not available in mass market paperback. It was published as an ebook and the only paper copy is something like $12.00, which I am assuming means it is print-to-order. This makes me gnash my teeth. I have the other fourteen in standard paperback and damn it I want this one in that format, too. I also don’t want to pay $12.00 for a little cozy mystery. I like these books, but they are not worth $12.00. Even if I did pay that, I’m betting the book won’t match the others on my shelf. This really bothers me (yes, yes, I know that’s a little OCD). I am so aggravated by this format issue I’ve decided just to quit the series. I don’t want it on Kindle, I don’t want the mismatched paperback. I’ll read the two that are yet to arrive and then I’m done.

    Sorry, I realize that was only tangentially related to your post. Can we just call it my personal illustration of the importance of format? 🙂

    Personally, I’ve started hoarding paper copies of my favorite books. I read plenty in ebook form, but reading paper gives me a feeling of calm and centeredness I don’t get from the electronic version. I dread the day when paper copies are impossible to get or too expensive to pick up casually. That day is coming.

    • Tangentially related is good 🙂 . I’m guessing that when you’re done, you’re done? Once you’ve moved on, you wouldn’t check back later to see whether the cozy mystery was available cheaper than $12 and with the packaging you liked?

      You’re right about paper books. That day is coming, and I suspect it’s coming faster than any of us expect. I almost wrote a comment earlier to say I think we may be heading full circle towards a time when when physical books once again become a status symbol – rare and precious.

  7. Like everybody else here, I think reading on an ereader and reading a paper book are profoundly different experiences. The ereader version is definitely more throwaway in my mind. With the paper version, like your research says, I remember where I saw something on the page. In general, I also remember the book better.

    Ebooks are definitely handier. I travel a lot, I always take my ereader, and I’m thrilled to have it. I download a lot of free stuff in my favorite genres to see what people are writing. I feel lucky that I can discard books quickly, without an emotional investment, or skip over sections that bore me (what you said about digital books teaching us to skim). I almost never buy a digital book. I never expect to read it again, although I save things I like. When I want to read something light and don’t want to pay for paper, I go to the library. When I want to read something heavy—nonfiction or reference—and keep it, I buy a used paper copy. I guess for me, paper just weighs more, in every way.

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