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Pixels or Paper? 

An article in the Nov. 2013 issue of Scientific American magazine confirms what most of us already know: We prefer reading words on paper to the screens of e-readers (Kindles, Nooks, etc.) and tablets (iPads, Galaxys, etc.). More than 100 comparative studies over the past 20 years in the U.S., U.K., Taiwan, Sweden, Norway, France and Japan consistently show that readers (1) prefer real paper over its electronic counterpart, and (2) achieve higher levels of comprehension and retention with paper. Many reasons are given, including:

Mental map. When reading a real book, most readers form a mental image of where content is on the page, and can flip back to what they've already read with ease, even though they don't know the page number (it's truer of non-fiction than fiction). This isn't the case with electronic versions.

Topography. A book quietly advertises its length, telling the reader how much has been read and how much remains, whereas in e-book form, Anna Karenina and The Garden of Forking Paths look and feel the same despite one being about 100 times longer. Progress bars at the bottom of electronic screens try to address this, but the information is less intuitive than actually seeing and feeling the pages read and pages remaining.

Lighting. Most readers find reading by reflected light, as in the case of a paper book, easier on the eyes than viewing backlit text.

Sensory cues. When reading e-books, people miss the tactile and other sense benefits provided by traditional books: We register the thickness and feel of the paper, the sound of a page turning, the hard or soft cover, the smell. Every book is unique, giving the reader the opportunity to become intimate with it.

Distractions. Instead of calling attention to itself, paper just sits there passively, so readers can focus on the text and absorb the content more completely than with an e-book or tablet. This is especially true of magazines and newspapers, whose electronic versions teem with potential distractions: interactive graphics, video interviews, live links to related articles, reader discussions and searchable text, not to mention easy, seductive access to email, Facebook and the like.

None of which addresses the issue of convenience, of course. I travel a lot, and the older I get, the lighter I go. On a recent seven-week trip, I carried just 15 pounds of stuff. There was no place for physical books at that minimalist weight level, but I probably had 50 virtual books with me, not to mention magazines, articles, video courses, photos and music on my iPad (including Scientific American).

In this country, e-books currently make up nearly 20 percent of the total trade book sales. The question now is whether young people "raised" on electronic screens will push that percentage ever higher — or will they, like most of us old-timers, instinctively turn to paper when they find a book they love or an article they really want to understand. Paper, which has been around for nearly 2,000 years, seems to be in no danger of disappearing just yet.

Barry Evans ( appreciates the marital harmony achieved by reading his (backlit) iPad in bed without switching the light on.

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About The Author

Barry Evans

Barry Evans

Barry Evans lives in Old Town Eureka with his girlfriend (and wife) Louisa Rogers, several kayaks and bikes, and a stuffed gorilla named “Nameless.” A recovering civil engineer, he is the author of two McGraw-Hill popular science books and has taught science and history. His Field Notes anthologies are available... more

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