When e-books first appeared, many rushed to predict the demise of the book as we know it. Scottish novelist Ewan Morrison declared that “within 25 years the digital revolution will bring about the end of paper books.” The future of the book, the magazine and the newspaper-the future of the word-lay in “e-publishing.” Morrison pointed to hard facts about trends in reading and publishing. People were flocking to the screen.
But the prophets may have spoken too soon. E-book sales, which skyrocketed after the launch of the Kindle, have fallen while sales of hardcovers and paperbacks have remained surprisingly resilient. Printed books still account for about three-quarters of overall book sales in the United States. And, a recent survey revealed that even the biggest fans of e-books continue to purchase a lot of printed items.
It seems that reading is more than simply comprehending words and pictures. We’re learning now that reading is a bodily activity. We take in information the way we experience the world-as much with our sense of touch as with our sense of sight. Some scientists believe that our brain actually interprets written letters and words as physical objects — a reflection that our brains perceive things, not symbols.
The differences between page and screen go beyond the pleasures of good paper stock. To the human mind, a sequence of pages bound together into a physical object is very different from a flat screen that displays only a single page of information at a time. The physical presence of printed pages, and the ability to flip back and forth through them, turns out to be important to the mind’s ability to navigate written works, particularly lengthy and complicated ones. We quickly develop a mental map of the contents of a printed text. You can feel the weight, texture and thickness of a pamphlet or book. You can see where it begins and ends. You can quickly leaf through the pages with your fingers. The brain has an easier task when you can touch, as well as see.
The spatial memories seem to translate into more immersive reading and stronger comprehension. A recent experiment conducted with young readers in Norway found that, with both expository and narrative works, people who read from a printed page understand a text better than those who read the same material on a screen. The findings are consistent with a series of other studies on the process of reading. “We know from empirical and theoretical research that having a good spatial mental representation of the physical layout of the text supports reading comprehension,” wrote the Norwegian researchers.
Electronic books and periodicals have advantages of their own, of course. They’re convenient, easily shared and linked to other relevant information, include animations, audio snippets, and can be easily updated. But, we don’t believe that the screen will ever completely replace the printed word.
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