Help! My e-book reader is eating my brain.

For some time after I’ve read a paper book (sometimes even months later), I’m able to locate certain passages by picturing them in my mind. I can remember, for example, that the lines I’m after are two-thirds of the way through the book and on the bottom right of the page. A quick flip through the book and I’ve found the passage I want.

This doesn’t happen on an e-book reader, which is an endless stream of text that is neither verso or recto and has no tactile features. The neuroscience behind this is summarised on the blog Agnostic, Maybe. Evolutionary neurobiologist Mark Changizi talks about memory and the way that the brain processes spatial relationships.

I seem to understand and take in more from the printed page than the screen. This is clear when I read a hefty paper book and then switch to the e-book version when I want something that’s easier to carry about.

“You’re a dinosaur, J.D”, I can hear you say. “You’re just imagining that reading comprehension and memory improves with paper books because you’re a nostalgic, Luddite book fetishist. If you were a true reader and writer, you’d value the text, not its physical presentation.”

Yeah? I already knew from usability studies that the answer to ‘How do people read on the web?’ is ‘They don’t’. They skim, they scan, they jump about, taking in only superficial things. I suspected that e-book readers had some similarities with the web. And other people such as Larry and Marina Page have commented on the way you seem to retain less information when reading e-books. Usability expert Jakob Nielsen has reported on reading speeds being better with print than tablet/e-book devices.  The New York Times has some interesting discussion about this. Some say it’s a matter of perception, but I think science will eventually show that we comprehend more of the printed word.

To say I have an ambivalent relationship with my e-book device is an understatement. One day I may well be arrested for its murder. If it hasn’t turned me into a zombie first, that is.

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