Why Read Real Books? Part 1

Let’s begin with the other side of the argument.

Top Reasons to Read an Ebook:

You don’t like to share.

You don’t like deals on used books.

You don’t want anyone to know that you are reading Twilight, again.

You don’t have the muscle tone to hold a real book.

You are a digital pirate.

You don’t want to sell your books after you read them.

You have an unreasonable fear of papercuts.

You are nearly blind.

You don’t want to remember what you read.

You have ADD too bad to carry around just one book.

You like the smell of new plastic.

You hate kittens.

Now onto real books.

Recently I was on a panel discussion on Top of Mind with Julie Rose, (you can listen to it here) talking about the role of ebooks in children’s literacy. As is often case in this sort of situation, I left thinking ‘I should have said this…I should have said that.’ So here are the things I wish I would have said, or at least said clearer.

I should state first off that I read ebooks and have two ereaders, so I am not arguing that one should only read physical books; I am arguing against the people who think that real books are obsolete and can’t imagine why anyone would read one when ebooks are available. I am also bothered by the sort of mentality that believes that by some historical process books will inevitably disappear in the same way as 8-track tapes. The people who talk like this don’t realize that the newest technology is not always the best–ebooks have plenty of advantages, but so do real books, as I will show–and they also don’t take into account that books have been part of our culture for two thousand years, not just a decade or two like many of the new technologies that have already become obsolete.

Ok, so why read a book-book? Studies have shown that you remember things better when you read a physical book instead of an electronic one, and this has been my experience also. In fact, the biggest reason I use paper books whenever possible is that I remember what I read far better. (Airport novels are fine for me on an ereader.) A friend of mine who teaches at two local universities was telling me just the other day that after two or three semesters of assigning ebooks in an attempt to save the students money he has gone back to real books. When I asked him why, he said that they weren’t learning anything. They could not recall the reading half as well as his students had been able to when they were using paper books. Those who have studied this phenomenon have postulated various reasons for it. The most common one is that you are more able to judge your place in a physical book: you feel the pages pile up on the left and know that you are now half way, now there are just a few pages left so the things happening now are the resolution, and so forth. The place in the plot thus corresponds to the physical place you are at in the book. I believe that this is quite valid, but I think that there is more to it. 

As you read, you are making a sort of topographical map in your head. Most people have noticed that they can remember something more clearly when they can say “it was at the top of the left page, about a third of the way into the book.” With an ebook you only have four corners to orient yourself, and the place of the text on the page varies with font size and other factors. With a physical book, you have 8 corners, you have a left and a right page (verso and recto), the text doesn’t move, you may have a smudge or an irregularity that imprints on the mind and so forth. All of this is very important and seems not to have been studied in depth, but there is more still. 

An aspect of reading and retaining what one reads that I have not seen mentioned in news articles and elsewhere, but that lay individuals have mentioned to me, and which is part of basic pedagogy, is the fact that the more neural pathways involved in learning the better one will learn and retain information. Thus, it is very significant that all or most of the senses can be involved when reading a physical book:

1) sight – obviously–and you are not just looking at something flat, but something that has contours, many points of reference, irregularities and so forth, etc. The paper itself has a texture that can be both seen and felt and for many book lovers is an important aspect of the experience of reading.

2) sound – as the pages turn.

3) smell – whether it has that new book smell or the rich sweet smell of an old book. (Lignin is a compound of wood based paper that gives off a vanilla-like smell as it breaks down; in fact imitation vanilla flavoring is made from wood pulp.)

4) touch – as you hold the book and turn the pages. The physical motion of turning the page is a subtle aspect of learning and of interacting with the text; if a child raises his arm and answers a question he will remember the answer better than if he hadn’t moved, and this is similar. As mentioned above, the feel of the paper is another subtle but important aspect of the reading experience. If I am reading something that is on high quality paper I automatically take it more serious. (This reminds me of studies that have shown that students are more likely to take print material more seriously than digital. This in turn reminds me of statistics that show that older people are more likely to think that everything of importance is available digitally while younger people are more likely to think some things are only available in print. The younger people are right.)

5) taste – this, of course, is the principal way that infants and dogs interact with books.

A reading experience which subtly engages the senses is far more likely to imprint deeply on the mind and last longer than a flatter and less engaging experience.  

Next time I will address other reasons to read a real book.