Is it better to read paper books or electronic books?
E-books have their benefits: They are convenient, especially when traveling, and they are often significantly less expensive than physical books. They are also becoming more like physical books as developers continue to improve the technology. Also, I think all reading is good, so I don’t oppose the reading of e-books. However, here are four reasons why printed books may be better for us:
1. Print Books Aid in Memorization
The case studies I’ve read indicate that subjects remember more and have greater concentration when reading physical books.1 It appears that human beings retain information better with paper pages than with electronic screens. Scrolling makes mind mapping difficult, so it seems any online-like reading is inferior to a physical book when it comes to memory.
If e-readers improve to eventually simulate ink on paper, eliminating all scrolling, then reader memory will no doubt be reinforced. But isn’t it interesting that as e-readers improve in quality, they get closer to copying the experience of reading physical books? I think that is an indication that there is something markedly artificial about reading text on a machine.
2. Print Books Preserve Our Humanity
As a philosopher and teacher, I think learning, reflecting, and especially reading is best done away from a machine, or at least not exclusively on a mechanical device. Computers and the various technologies we use today have many practical advantages, but I am concerned about what they do to our humanity and how they give an impression of learning that is somewhat artificial. Handling a smartphone, a laptop, and various other mechanical devices for a significant part of our day tends to hinder interaction with others and detracts from serious reflection.2
3. Print Books Appeal to Our Senses
Many print book readers enjoy the pleasant glue and ink smell inherent in a real book, the sound that the pages make as they turn, and the feel of the paper beneath their fingertips. These sensations are not only aesthetically pleasing. When a person is able to physically interact with books, the interaction enhances the learning experience.
Educational studies have indicated that students remember more when they write by hand than when they type on a machine. Though e-readers claim to provide ease in reading and studying (giving the impression of deep learning), the machine isn’t allowing the user to connect with the material or work hard enough to get to the next level of understanding. Educators Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren emphasized the importance of “making a book your own” by marking, underlining, outlining, and dog-earing the book.3 Updated e-readers allow for some of this connectedness, but they still don’t stimulate the senses in the same way. With physical books, the reader has an encounter with a book that doesn’t disappear when you hit the off button.
4. Print Books Offer a Unique Ambience
Physical libraries with thousands and thousands of published books are places that deeply enhance the joy and satisfaction of reading, learning, and thinking. Seeing the title of a physical book can provoke thought about the volume’s central theme. Just being surrounded by physical books in my office inspires me to think and reflect. When I seek knowledge, learning, and wisdom, I naturally turn to my physical library. Unlike e-books, that athenaeum is never shut down or unplugged.
So, these are some of my reflections about the specialness of physical books and why I prefer them to e-books. Personal preference no doubt plays an important role in which kind of books we choose to read. I am definitely old school in many ways, and I like to take the phrase “People of the Book” literally. Yet again, all reading is good, so if you are an e-book reader, keep it up.
Reflections: Your Turn
Do you prefer to read physical books or e-books? Why?
- Jon Levine, “Reading Books Instead of Kindles Can Improve Your Memory, Concentration and Good Looks,” ArtsMic (blog), Mic, August 20, 2015, https://mic.com/articles/124120/reading-books-instead-of-kindles-can-improve-your-memory-concentration-and-good-looks; Ferris Jabr, “The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: Why Paper Still Beats Screens,” Scientific American 309 (November 2013), http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-reading-brain-in-the-digital-age-why-paper-still-beats-screens.
- See my article, “Do You Like Being Alone with Your Thoughts?” Reflections (blog), Reasons to Believe, August 12, 2014, http://www.reasons.org/blogs/reflections/do-you-like-being-alone-with-your-thoughts.
- Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972), 48–51.