Should the book itself be a thing of the past?

Should the book itself be a thing of the past?

Sadie Underwood, Sr. High Staff Writer

Technology is constantly advancing. Books, articles, newspapers, and other forms of literature are now just a click away. While electronic books, or e-books, have been in existence for years, the popularity of e-readers and tablets, as well as the growth of electronic publishing, has dramatically increased in recent years. Yet, this easy accessibility may be one of society’s greatest pitfalls, leaving many to question whether digital forms of literature help or hinder literacy development.

Understanding the difference between reading on paper and digitally requires an explanation behind the brain’s interpretation of the written language. Reading is an abstract activity, one characterized by thoughts and ideas, tone and themes, metaphors and motifs. However, to the human brain, text is a perceptible part of the physical world. Humans are not born with brain circuits meant for reading. In fact, the invention came late in the evolutionary history of mankind (Zax 4). Reading uses regions of the brain that “originally evolved to process vision and spoken language” (Miller 3). 

Some of these repurposed brain regions are specialized for object recognition. For example, networks of neurons allow the mind to quickly determine the difference between an apple and an orange but categorize both as fruit. Similar to learning the distinguishing characteristics of an apple, humans learn to recognize each letter by its particular arrangement of lines, curves, and hollow spaces (Recognition: Objects, Humans, Activities 1-3). Some of the earliest forms of writing, such as Sumerian cuneiform, originated as characters shaped like the objects they represented. This can be linked to letters used in the modern world such as c for crescent moon and s for snake (About Cuneiform Writing 1). Especially intricate characters, like Japanese kanji, activate motor regions in the brain involved in forming those characters on paper. The brain goes through the motions of writing when reading, even if the hands are empty (Buchweitz et al. 33-34). More recently, researchers have made a similar discovery with cursive. Both “a shape recognition system (reading by eye) and a gesture recognition system (reading by hand)” are activated (Nakamura et al. 1). 

Besides treating letters like physical objects, the brain connects text to a physical landscape. When reading, the mind constructs a “mental representation of the mapping between the content of documents and their structure” (Payne and Reader 1). The exact nature of such representations remains unclear, but they are likely similar to the mental maps we create of terrain and man-made physical spaces (Li et al. 1). Studies have shown that people are able to remember and locate a certain passage in the text or page number (Rothkopf 1). For example, one might recall a specific quote on the top of page 27. The words become a fixed location, a landmark that is easily remembered and mapped. 

Paper books allow readers to create a better mental map. Presented with left and right pages and a total of eight corners, readers are able to focus solely on one page without losing sight of the entire text. One can see where the book begins and ends and where one page is in relation to those borders. It provides readers with the ability to track progress by feeling the thickness of the pages read in one hand and pages to be read in the other (Benson 15). The activation of senses, such as “seeing the words, feeling the weight of the pages, and even smelling the paper,” helps process information more effectively (Mayer et al. 2). 

On the other hand, screens force readers to constantly scroll, making it hard to map words and places in the text (Benson 11). While e-readers like the Kindle and tablets like the iPad re-create pagination that are sometimes complete with page numbers, headers, and illustrations, the screen only displays a single virtual page. Readers are unable to record previous pages and what still has yet to be read (Mangen et al. 8). Screens are less likely to activate parts of the brain that process visual and spatial clues, preventing reading comprehension. Information is reviewed quickly and briefly, taking a toll on one’s memory (Benson 9-10). 

Anne Mangen, a literacy professor at the University of Stavanger in Norway, conducted a study on fifty 24-year-olds, comparing the reading of a long text on a Kindle and on print. The participants read a 28-page-long mystery story on either medium and completed several tests measuring various levels of reading comprehension. Results showed that print readers recalled the story’s chronological order more accurately. Mangen claims this is due to the sensorimotor cues that enhance cognitive processing in print (Mangen et al. 1). 

Digital literature also interferes with two other important aspects of navigating texts: serendipity and a sense of control. Reports reveal that readers enjoy flipping to a previous section of a paper book when a sentence surfaces a memory of something they read earlier or quickly scanning ahead on a whim. Additionally, readers like to have as much control over a text as possible, whether that’s using permanent ink to highlight important passages and words, easily writing notes to themselves in the margins, or folding corners to mark their place (Gerlach and Buxmann 1). 

Due to these preferences, people tend to choose paper when they really want to dive into a story. In a survey done in 2011, the majority of graduate students at National Taiwan University reported quickly browsing a few paragraphs online before printing out the whole text for more in-depth reading (Jabr 6). Moreover, in a 2003 study conducted at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, nearly 80% of 687 surveyed students preferred to read text on paper as opposed to on a screen in order to better understand its clarity (Ramirez 8). 

Although many old and recent studies conclude that people understand what they read on paper more thoroughly than what they read on screens, the differences are often small. Some experiments, however, suggest that researchers should look not just at immediate reading comprehension, but also at long-term memory. In a 2003 study, Kate Garland of the University of Leicester and her colleagues asked 50 British college students to read study material from an introductory economics course either on a computer monitor or in a spiral-bound booklet. After 20 minutes of reading Garland and her colleagues quizzed the students with multiple-choice questions. Students scored equally well regardless of the medium but differed in how they remembered the information (Jabr 5).

Psychologists distinguish between implicit memories, “information that you remember unconsciously and effortlessly,” and explicit memories, “information that you have to consciously work to remember” (Cherry 1). Explicit memories are a weaker form of memory that are likely to fade unless converted into more stable, long-term implicit memories (Cherry 1). When taking the quiz, volunteers who had read study material on a monitor relied much more on explicit memory than on implicit memory, whereas students who read on paper depended equally on explicit and implicit memory. Garland and her colleagues concluded that students who read on paper learned the study material more thoroughly and quickly. They did not have to spend a lot of time searching their minds for information from the text, trying to trigger the right memory, they often just knew the answers (Szalavitz 7). 

Other researchers have suggested that people comprehend less when they read on a screen because screen-based reading is more physically and mentally taxing than reading on paper. E-ink is easy on the eyes because it reflects ambient light just like a paper book, but computer screens, smartphones, and tablets like the iPad shine light directly into people’s faces. Depending on the model of the device, glare, pixilation, and flickers can also tire the eyes (Benson 13-14). Prolonged reading on glossy self-illuminated screens can cause eyestrain, headaches, and blurred vision. These symptoms are so common among workers who spend long hours in front of computer screens, that the American Optometric Association officially refers to it as “computer vision syndrome” (Computer vision syndrome 1). 

Erik Wästlund of Karlstad University in Sweden has conducted research on whether paper or screens demand more physical and cognitive resources. In one of his experiments, 72 volunteers completed the Higher Education Entrance Examination READ test, a 30-minute, Swedish-language reading-comprehension exam consisting of multiple-choice questions about five texts averaging 1,000 words each. People who took the test on a computer scored lower and reported higher levels of stress and tiredness than people who completed it on paper (Wästlund 20).

In another set of experiments 82 volunteers completed the READ test on computers, either as a paginated document or as an extended piece of text. Afterward, researchers assessed the students’ attention and working memory, which is a collection of mental talents that allow people to temporarily store and manipulate information in their minds. Volunteers had to quickly close a series of pop-up windows, for example, sort virtual cards or remember digits that flashed on a screen. Like many cognitive abilities, working memory is a finite resource that diminishes with exertion (Wästlund 23).

Although people in both groups performed equally well on the READ test, those who had to scroll through the continuous text did not do as well on the attention and working-memory tests (Wästlund 24). Wästlund claims that scrolling, which requires a reader to consciously focus on both the text and how they are moving it, drains more mental resources than turning or clicking a page, which are simpler and more automatic gestures (Wästlund 34-35).

Studies also show that in addition to screens taking a toll on one’s attention, people take digital reading less seriously (Darboe 66). According to a 2005 study of 113 people in northern California, Ziming Liu of San Jose State University concluded that people reading on screens take a lot of shortcuts. They tend to spend more time browsing, scanning, and hunting for keywords compared with people reading on paper, and are more likely to read a document only once (Liu 5).

When reading on screens, people seem less inclined to engage in what psychologists call” “metacognitive learning regulation,” strategies such as setting specific goals, rereading difficult sections, and checking how much one has understood along the way (Darboe 68). In a 2011 experiment at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, college students took multiple-choice exams about expository texts either on computers or on paper. Researchers limited half the volunteers to seven minutes of study time, while the other half could review the text for as long as they wished. When under pressure to read quickly, students using computers and paper performed equally well. When managing their own study time, however, volunteers using paper scored about 10% higher. Students using paper approached the exam with a more studious mindset than their screen-reading peers and more effectively directed their attention and working memory (Ackerman and Lauterman 7-10).

Engineers, designers, and user-interface experts are constantly studying ways to improve digital reading. Though, evidence from multiple studies suggests that traditional ways still outweigh modern advancements. Long pieces of text are best comprehended on plain paper and ink. Paper allows brain regions to adequately recognize letters, provides a sense of navigation, control, and enjoyment, improves memory, is less physically and mentally taxing, and is read with a more studious mindset.


Works Cited

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