Are Books Better?

I love books. I love the smell and texture of a fresh page. I love picking out a title from the library just as much as buying a new paperback from Barnes and Noble. I love the art on the covers and the satisfaction of turning page after page until there are none left to turn. And while some may disagree, according to recent science, I am not alone. While at it’s surface reading seems to be only a visual and imaginative process, the physical relationship of a reader to their book is important in many ways. 

According to recent research, there is a “tactile sense of progress” we experience as we read. To put it simply, as we read, we track our progress with the pile of growing pages under our left thumb. To test this, researchers had NorReading_in_Practice_MAwegian teens read from paper and PDFs. The students were dived into separate groups and then they were tested on plot summary. Guess who did better? Of course, it was the paper readers! The use of paper gave them a sense of progress, and although it was unconscious, it helped them map the plot better than those reading from a screen. 

In addition to the tactile benefits of a book, books also tend to elicit a more emotional response in the reader. However, kindle reading has its own benefits. You save space and money by downloading these digital books. Both are perks which I think would persuade Thoreau to be a digital reader himself, had he been given the option. While plot summary may be more difficult coming from a PDF, the same study showed the medium for leisure reading had little to no impact on text digesting ability. Most don’t endorse reading Ulysses on your kindle, but encourage you to download Gone Girl when you’ve got the chance.

While he battle of superior reading experiences seems centered around paper and kindle, there are other contenders. iPads are equipped with an iBooks app, and there are websites dedicated to digitalizing literature. Digital literature is undoubtedly important in immortalizing texts and making them accessible  to everyone. However, reading from a computer screen or a device with a backlight-such as an iPad-can have consequences.

Screen Shot 2015-02-22 at 1.59.05 PMThis observation is by no means a cry to end the digitalization of literature, rather a caution on how and when you use your device to read. Reading in the 2 hours before bed, as 90% of Americans do, is a terrible idea. The backlight on iPads and computers is blue, which we are very sensitive to. Overdosing on this light, which the digital world forces us to do on a daily basis, can decrease our melatonin levels and harm our sleeping cycle, particularly in these hours before bed. Rather than prescribing patients to put down their devices, doctors have started endorsing the use of orange lens glasses while utilizing a backlight screen. The complementary colors supposedly cancel out and minimize the effect of blue backlights. Instead of limiting computer time, we go and get glasses. Progress.

While unlimited titles available online is amazing progress, the health risks are are real step back. In addition to endangered melatonin levels, cortisol levels spike. Risk for obesity, diabetes, and other disorders jump as well. This is, of course, in the extreme case of computer use. I don’t believe digitalizing literature is going to make everyone sick, but considering the time we already spend on our computers, we need to be wary.

Reading, regardless of the platform, is an enriching experience. If you choose to reap the benefits of a digital library, be sure to do so in short bursts of time and carefully monitor your comprehension. Or, you could go old school, and just enjoy a good old book. (x)

One comment

  1. Profile photo of Rebecca Miller

    I like your way of looking at things here, it’s very pragmatic. Like, what are the pros and cons of both sides? How can we combat the cons and build on the pros? I’m wondering what you think about the origins of some of these aspects, though. Do you think people used to learning/comprehending through codex style texts would do best when reading books simply because that’s what they’re used to? Or do you think there’s a sort of objective, timeless advantage here?

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