Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Rock, scissors... e-reader?

The debate between paper books and e-readers seems to have taken mythical proportions, like the eternal conflict between good and evil, conservatives and liberals, cat people and dog people, and The Voice and American Idol. Even if those who embrace the digital version of our beloved tomes get more numerous by the day, once in a while we get a piece of good news that proves that books still have some life left in them.

An online survey conducted by BookNet Canada showed that, as much as e-readership is on the rise, parents are reluctant to encourage their children to use e-readers. Only four per cent of parents admitted they preferred their children read ebooks, and 63 per cent are partial to traditional books. This comes as no surprise, since story time could not be the same without the old-fashioned story book. Is it because of the rustle of the pages turning as the story progresses? Or maybe the tangibility of physically turning a page, while the reader pauses in anticipation? Or could it be the individuality of each book, different in size, weight and cover design, as opposed to all being bundled up inside a device that makes them all of equal size, weight, and appearance, with no identity whatsoever? It could be all of these, or something else, a mysterious ingredient that defines the charm of the story book.

Coincidentally, the November issue of Scientific American published the article The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: Why Paper Still Beats Screens. The study at the origin of the article shows that comprehension is much better when the subjects read paper material, compared to electronic text. Researchers found that "screen-based reading can dull comprehension because it is more mentally taxing and even physically tiring than reading on paper. [...] Prolonged reading on glossy, self-illuminated screens can cause eyestrain, headaches and blurred vision." Compellingly, in an experiment, the people who took a comprehension test on a computer did not score as well as those taking it on paper, and they reported higher strain and weariness.

Can you tell that I am biased toward paper books already? The truth of the matter is that you need only pick an idea, and you can find research, studies, and experiments to either support or oppose it. We live in such a vast, complicated world, that we only need to focus on some aspects instead of others, and interpretations change completely. So, in my case, it would be very convenient to disregard the study that shows that 40 per cent of e-reader owners read more than they did print books, this one that proves seniors find easier to read e-books than print, or this study that shows that e-readers may be better for people with dyslexia, wouldn't it?

The reality is that there are pros and cons on both sides (you can find them here), and for now it is more a matter of preference. There are even people equally inclined to use either, depending on the circumstances, such as carrying an e-reader for commute or travel, and switching back to paper books when reading a bedtime story. The real test will come when the digital natives, the generation who is growing up now in an almost completely digitized environment, reaches the stage when they make the final decisions on what to buy, what to produce, and what to support. By then, will this one year old come around to the beauty of the printed word, or she will still view it as a badly designed software?

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