Will eReaders make us worse readers?

With the way today’s world is moving (more to the digital and less toward the physical), it was only a matter of time before we looked at the effects of reading books in print versus reading them on electronic devices. As this article indicates, several studies have been done already, discussing the difference in recollection and whatnot between reading from eReaders compared to traditional print books, but this is the first I’ve seen come up on my radar, so I figured it was worth exploring.

(Thanks to all my reading, writing, and literary Facebook friends for providing me with continual fodder for this blog!)

Anyway, let’s get back to it: according to this and several similar studies, reading comprehension goes down when people read from an eReader compared to people who read from print sources. Surprised? I’m not.

This article goes into a few theories about why–specifically, in this case, that remembering the order of certain plot elements is easier when you can tie that back to the physical place in a book (determined by the number of pages in your hands at a given time), which you can only do in print media and not in digital form. I’d also bet a huge factor is that many people read on devices that are not dedicated reading devices (you can play Bejeweled on your iPad just as easily as you can open the Kindle App). In other words, we’re less focused on actually reading when we literally have the world at our fingertips with several digital reading devices.

This study, and the others exploring the same topic, give a really interesting insight into the future of publishing and of reading. For a while now, the publishing industry has been moving more and more toward the digital side of things (albeit begrudgingly, it seems, since we all want to see our books in print and somehow a Nook screen doesn’t feel the same). While there are some ridiculously crazy benefits to being able to have a library of literally hundreds of thousands of books at your disposal any time you’d like them, there are also serious drawbacks. Batteries, for example, and the fact that people may be less likely to remember your book accurately if they read it on their Kindle instead of in its physical print version.

Like most writers I know, I want to see my book published in print, but I’m not against the idea of eReaders on principle. I bought a Nook, and though I don’t use it as often as I read physical books, I can’t ignore the fact that it has given me access to books I’d have a hard time getting otherwise–and immediate access to several books I’d have to wait days (maybe even weeks) to get if I ordered them online. Additionally, it can easily be argued that “reading comprehension” is less of a big deal when you’re reading for fun than when you’re reading something for a class.

(Though I wouldn’t argue that, because I think reading comprehension is important no matter what you read. I’m just saying, the argument could be made.)

Anyway, I think this is something we’ll have to explore further. I definitely don’t see the world moving backward technologically, so to speak, and in a matter of time we’ll probably see a total dismissal of print books altogether. Sure, that won’t happen any time in the super near future (or maybe it will–the progress we’ve made with technology is really crazy, if you stop to think about it), but what does that mean to our future generations of readers? Will we have readers who struggle to truly comprehend what they’re reading, or will we adjust to technology and learn to use digital media just as efficiently as print media?

We also can’t ignore other possible reasons for findings such as these in the study. For example, if a reader is really immersed in the book, would it matter whether they were reading it on a Kindle or on paper? Similarly, if a reader is highly disinterested in the piece, what kind of difference would that make? There may also be a case for experienced Kindle readers and inexperienced Kindle readers. There are a lot of avenues we still have to explore.

Either way, it’ll be interesting to find out how this moves forward.


Categories: Writing

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