Which medium is preferable for leisure reading, e-book or paper? An article by Alison Flood in The Guardian (Links to an external site.) mentions a study conducted to try and answer that question. A lead researcher, Anne Mangen, said that they gave 50 participants a story to read. Half received paper copies and the other half received e-book copies. The study found that “the paper readers have a higher empathy, transportation and immersion along with narrative coherence than those with e-book copies of the same story.”
Mangen also pointed to a study in which 72 tenth grade students were given a similar test: some had the physical text and some had a PDF. Mangen found that the print readers scored significantly higher on comprehension tests given during the study.
Abigail Sellen of Microsoft Research Cambridge states (Links to an external site.) that “the implicit feel of where you are in a book turns out to be more important than we realize.” When we read a printed book, we sense the pages turning as the story unfolds before our eyes and in our imaginations. The reader can sense the story coming to an end as the pages lessen to the right and accumulate to the left. He gets a sense of progression and accomplishment. Could this sense be due to a form of sensory output supporting achievement through visual progression?
I decided to do my own research involving a study of 30 readers. 15 were males and 15 were females. The females ranged in ages from 16-76, and the males were ages 19-72. The occupations of the study group varied on both data sets from retired educators and construction workers to professional actors and stunt performers. Both data sets have relatively similar educational backgrounds. Each participant agreed to read two books: Clive Cussler’s Valhalla Rising and Sahara. I chose these two books because they had action, suspense, drama, and romance with a relatively easy plot to follow and both were almost equivalent in length and content. All participants answered 11 comprehension questions about each story to ensure that they read the books in their entirety.
Of the 30 participants, 63% preferred paper to e-books. The 63% that preferred paper stated that they felt more in control and that the e-book format was not as easy to connect with. As Abigail Sellen would have predicted, the participants wanted the feel of paper in their hands and the feeling of accomplishment from turning pages. In other words, to them, the overall serendipity and sense of control is better with the paper book.
The 37% of the study group that preferred e-book stated that they preferred the ease and accessibility. Having a portable device to read in spare time was important due to an often-hectic schedule. This group also stated that lugging around another book along with their electronic device seemed unnecessary. Their responses were more mechanical in nature compared to the emotional responses from those that preferred paper books.
Screens and e-readers interfere with intuitive management of written text and inhibit the mental mapping of the journey in the reader’s mind. In digital text, a reader can quickly skim over words, paragraphs, entire chapters, and even jump directly to a particular phrase. With paper books, the reader tends to feel as if they have cheated in some way for skimming over materials.
Even though 37% voted for the e-book format, 65% of that same group admitted that the paper book was harder to put down. The times for reading within the two groups varied as well. The 63% who preferred paper enjoyed reading during leisure time and just before bed, while 15% of this group read at work. 76% of the e-book readers did their reading at work and 24% of them read during leisure time. The paper book readers were 87% more likely to put the stories’ events in chronological order as opposed to 72% of the e-book readers. While the paper book readers seemed to have more empathy for the main character, e-book readers were still on par with them having around 88% who understood his plight in both novels.
With my own research and that done by both Anne Mangen’s group and Abigail Sellen, I believe that the cognitive site of our brain tends to be more emotionally connected to a story read on paper. While I am sure that producers of e-readers are striving every day to make their product as close to the real thing as they can, paper text still has more emotional impact. The research shows that most people want the paper book’s sense of accomplishment and old-fashioned feel of turning pages.