A family reading
(Photograph: Daniel Shea) © Daniel Shea

Choosing books to take on holiday has got more difficult in recent years. Now it is a question not just of what to read but how – on paper, tablet, e-reader, or perhaps even a phone – and people have strong opinions on which is best. But is there any more to the decision than cost and convenience? On this question, the answer suggested by numerous studies into the neuroscience and psychology of reading in different formats is an emphatic yes.

There is no shortage of people warning of the risks attendant on the rise of “screen culture”, as the neuroscientist Susan Greenfield calls it. Greenfield has repeatedly expressed concern that, as technology takes us into unknown territory, “the brain may be adapting in unprecedented ways”. Though she tends to stress that these changes might be good or bad, that hasn’t stopped her more negative speculations being picked up in the media and amplified in far more strident terms.

On the other side of the two cultures divide, the novelist and critic Will Self recently argued that the connectivity of the digital world was fatal for the serious novel, which requires all the reader’s attention. Looking ahead 20 years, he posed a question: “If you accept that by then the vast majority of text will be read in digital form on devices linked to the web, do you also believe that those readers will voluntarily choose to disable that connectivity? If your answer to this is no, then the death of the novel is sealed out of your own mouth.”

E-reading is certainly on the rise. The Pew Research Center reports that, as recently as 2010, hardly anyone in the US had an e-reader or tablet. Now half do. The proportion of the population who have read an ebook in the past year rose from 17 per cent in 2011 to 28 per cent just three years later. In the UK, figures from Nielsen, which monitors book sales, showed that one in four consumer titles bought in 2013 was an ebook, up from one in five a year earlier.

Is this cause for concern? There is some evidence that reading on screen can result in less comprehension and even affect sleep patterns. But the research here is complex and inconclusive and, in any case, it is actually doing something far more interesting than telling us which medium is superior. It’s making us think more about what it means to read.

As researchers examine the differences reading in different media make, they are also having to distinguish carefully between the different things that we do when we read. Take, for instance, the difference between “deep reading”, when you really get immersed in a text, and “active learning”, when you make notes in margins or put down the book to cross-reference with something else.

When Anne Campbell of the Open University in Scotland looked at how students used Kindle readers and paper books, she found that the electronic devices promoted more deep reading and less active learning. This appeared to be a direct result of design. “They’re less distracted using this very basic Kindle,” she told me. “They’re almost being forced to focus on it because of the very lack of ability to do things like flick forward and flick back.” Another related, widely replicated finding, is that people read more slowly on screens than from paper.

Sara Margolin of the State University of New York has also conducted research in this area. She says that “slowing down may actually allow us to spend more time consolidating what we have read into a more cohesive mental representation of the text”; furthermore, “not skipping around during reading” could be “a good thing in that it forces the reader to read the text in order, and preserves the organisation the author intended”. However, it also discourages rereading, which is known to help with “metacomprehension” – readers’ ability to recognise whether or not they have understood what they just read.

This example alone shows how debates over whether print beats screen are hopelessly simplistic, not least because reading on a computer, with endless distractions a click away, is very different from reading on a dedicated e-reader. Much depends on what you’re reading and why. In a Taiwanese study led by Szu-Yuan Sun, the results suggested that reading linear texts in the manner of traditional paper books was “better for middle-aged readers’ literal text comprehension” but reading on computers with hyperlinks “is beneficial to their inferential text comprehension”. In other words, the joined-up environment of the web encourages people to make connections and work things out, while straightforward reading encourages them to take in what’s on the page in front of them. Hence the prevalence of hyperlinks and multiple windows on computers could be seen as creating either unwelcome distraction or more opportunities for active learning.

Where research has suggested that comprehension is diminished by screen reading, it is hard to know if this is an artefact of the particular piece of technology and people’s familiarity with it. “Having a device that requires a lot of attention to simply operate could essentially steal working memory resources,” says Margolin. That did not appear to be the case in her own research, which she suggests was probably because “the device we used was fairly easy to manipulate and my participants were familiar with technology”.

This is a nice example of how hard it is to know whether the preferences we have for one type of reading device over another are rooted in the essentials of cognition or are simply cultural. As another researcher, Simone Benedetto, points out: “The fact that the large majority of the population is still trained to the use of paper since early childhood has a major influence on the preference for paper.”

We have to remember that ereaders are very new and developers are still improving them. For example, Margolin says that one of the biggest problems with screen reading is that back-lit screens used by tablets, laptops and desktop computers can lead to eye fatigue and, if done at night, can “upset our circadian rhythm, making sleep more difficult”. Newer screens, such as Kindle’s Paperwhite, are overcoming these problems.

With other issues, it isn’t obvious whether the drawbacks are inherent or not. For instance, Campbell explains how we create “cognitive maps” of what we’re reading, which include visual memories of whether certain passages were top of a left-hand page, for example, and kinaesthetic information based on heft and bulk, which tells us how much we have left to read. That helps explain why Benedetto has found that “scrolling impairs the spatial memory”, making it more difficult to find your way around a text. However, as Campbell, says, we’ve learnt how to create cognitive maps unconsciously, through years of reading, and it could be that people raised on ereaders simply won’t rely on the same cues and will instead use searchable keywords and toolbar data to navigate around. This might actually be more efficient.

A whole other area of research concerns motivation. One of the recurrent concerns of the internet age is that children are reading less. But there is some evidence that, used wisely, ereaders could encourage more reading. Campbell, for instance, points to a large National Literacy Trust survey last year, which found that children read more when using ereaders than paper books. She thinks the main reason for this is that it is small, light and portable, and you can pull it out at odd moments, such as “when waiting for the bus to arrive”.

Ereaders also have the advantage that, from the outside, it’s impossible to see whether someone is reading the latest teen vampire romance or a primer on differential calculus. “You could study surreptitiously,” says Campbell, giving examples of people using their readers in hairdressers or even at work. This reflects an aspect of reading we are all aware of but are often reluctant to admit. The book in your hand or on your coffee table is a public statement about who you are. Ereaders are, therefore, useful in getting over concerns with image and providing a kind of licence for us to follow our curiosity and interests more.

If used smartly, ereaders could provide a huge help to many, as evidenced by the title of one recent study by a Harvard team led by Matthew Schneps: “E-Readers Are More Effective than Paper for Some with Dyslexia”. Schneps told me that some dyslexics are “prone to becoming distracted by the words on the page adjacent to the target word being read at the moment”. Narrow columns can help with this, and of course “formatting is difficult to modify in a printed book, but trivial to alter in an e-reader.” With print, one size has to fit all, whereas with electronic devices, all manner of customisation is possible, potentially meaning that each user can create her own optimal reading environment.

Overall, there doesn’t seem to be any convincing evidence that reading on screen or paper is better per se. “If the cognitive component is strong,” suggests Benedetto, “the cultural one is even stronger.” For Margolin, “the preference for reading on paper or a screen seems to be just that: a preference.” And, increasingly, younger people are opting for digital. The National Literary Trust survey found 52 per cent of 8- to 16-year-olds preferred reading on screen, with just 32 per cent preferring print.

Anne Mangen from the University of Stavanger in Norway suggests that we need more longitudinal studies, conducted over decades, before we can figure out which effects of different reading media are due to familiarity or lack of it, and which are “related to more innate aspects of human cognition”.

Yet research has already told us a lot about how we read now. First and foremost, it emphasises that even using paper, there are many different approaches. Most of us probably have a settled style: you might be a skimmer, a skipper, a front-to-back completist, a keeper of the pristine page or an obsessive writer of marginalia. Whatever the case, our habits have probably been created largely as combination of childhood experience and how the medium we read in is nudging us. Simply being more aware of the alternatives might help us to read better, avoiding distraction to get immersed in fiction, for example, or self-consciously breaking the flow of non-fiction reading to make sure we’re processing the information.

Second, we might benefit from being aware of just how much habit, fashion and culture shape our preferences. When we sit on a train with a book open in front of us, how much has our choice of reading being influenced by our ideas of what a proper book should be like, and how a proper adult should appear in public?

Because it is obvious that reading is important, it can easily seem self-evident what reading is. Perhaps the real contribution of ereaders will be to make us re-examine that assumption.

Julian Baggini is editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine and author of ‘The Virtues of the Table: How to Eat and Think’ (Granta)

This article has been amended since original publication

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