Engagement With The Text

The debate over the relative merits of reading electronic and printed books continues. It is not an idle one, as several issues are involved—comparative learning, retention, pleasure, cost, convenience, etc. Most commentators acknowledge a certain degree of uncertainty about the mater.

Not Tim Parks, who last year claimed that reading on the screen is superior to reading on paper. After describing the well-known benefits of e-books—purchase text instantly, pay less, save trees, and carry around countless volumes, etc.—Parks moves beyond these features to the nature of the reading experience itself.

“The e-book… would seem to bring us closer than the paper book to the essence of the literary experience. Certainly it offers a more austere, direct engagement with the words appearing before us and disappearing behind us than the traditional paper book offers, ... It is as if one had been freed from everything extraneous and distracting surrounding the text to focus on the pleasure of the words themselves. In this sense the passage from paper to e-book is not unlike the moment when we passed from illustrated children’s books to the adult version of the page that is only text. This is a medium for grown-ups.”

Who is Parks referring to? I am not sure he is speaking for anyone but himself. Can he present supporting argument and evidence for claiming a reader is more engaged with an e-book than its printed counterpart?

As for myself, no matter how often I read an e-book, I always feel something is missing. What is missing is the print-book’s ease of writing notes, marking passages, as well as all the physical features of the printed book itself that I have grown used to and quite frankly mean a lot to me.

Taken together the experience of reading a printed book brings me closer to the text, heightens my reading experiences, and deepens it if you will. I can turn back and forth between pages, not a feature that is easily carried out on an e-book, think further about the passages I mark, make further notes and I can do this any time I go back to the book on my shelf, which I do a lot and never do in an e-book

I realize some of these behaviors can be performed on an e-book but for me doing that barely approximates carrying them out on the printed page. No doubt I’m “old school,” too fixed in my ways to change a life long pattern reading. On the other hand, I am aware that many far younger readers, including students reading academic texts, find e-books an undesirable alternative to those clunky, heavy, extravagant printed texts.

A fellow blogger replied to comments about Parks’ article by suggesting a serious engagement with the text can happen with any format, not just an e-book. And then she added: “I think most readers don’t really care as long as they have a good book to read.” I reply, “But it does to me.”

While research on this topic is in its early stages, what little we know suggests that there are major differences in the reading experience as a function of its format—print, online, e-reader, audiotape. Measures of retention, reader satisfaction, and neural processing, etc. seem to vary with each of these modes of presentation.

At the very least, anyone asserting one format is superior to any other should acknowledge the potential relevance of these findings, even if they do not influence their preferences. In an interview on this topic, Anne Mangen, an investigator at the National Center for Reading Research & Education in Norway, hit the nail on the head:

“I would say that the current shift from paper to screen represents a vast literary shift, the implications of which—short-term and, in particular, long-term—we are not yet aware of.”