The Debate: Online vs. Onscreen vs. Physical Reading

I came across an interesting article (click on the photo below to read it for yourself) on the Scientific American website; it compares e-reading to physical reading, and discusses the pros and cons, the questions as to whether our brains are adapting to deal with the new technological challenges, and whether or not we as a human race could risk losing certain cognitive functions by abandoning physical reading.  I found the article informative; but I also observed myself while reading and I discovered a few things:

As I write (type) this, I’m sitting in my usual writing location – in our home library surrounded by well over a thousand books.  I’ve collected antique books over the years, and have some nearly 200 years old, while I have my own latest books fresh off the press as well.  Those books, old or new, aren’t for show – they’re for reading.  I also have a Kindle, and often read books either on the Kindle or on my android Tab, or even my computer with the Kindle for PC app.  But as I read the article I found myself getting impatient, and I realized that the article, while professing to be a neutral assessment of the two mediums, had broken a few unspoken criteria for Netiquette:  When I read online my expectation is that the article is succinct (not rambling); 300-500 words is the optimal length (give or take a bit), and yet this SA article was over 3,900 words long, equivalent to 7 A4 typed pages (I copied the article to plain text for a quick check).  As a comparison, a random chapter from a novel (taken from my Kindle) was at 3,200 words (5 A4 pages).  Underlying assumptions are that a) a typical magazine or periodical article that works in a printed format should work equally as well for an online format and b) if it doesn’t it must mean that people reading online are less patient or (dare I say it?) less intelligent than our print readers.  But some of the questions (and one assumes they are rhetorical) the article raises are, “As digital texts and technologies become more prevalent, we gain new and more mobile ways of reading—but are we still reading as attentively and thoroughly? How do our brains respond differently to onscreen text than to words on paper?” Had they looked at any resources for tips on writing articles online, they would have seen a tip at the top of most lists regarding length.  Our brains do respond differently to online text because we have a different set of expectations or criteria.

Personally, I read a lot.  A LOT.  Both digital as well as printed formats.  I would classify myself as, for want of a proper word, “Polyliterate”: I read equally thoroughly in a book and on my Kindle / computer.  But criteria and expectations are different for online vs. onscreen, and I think the article misses that distinction.  Onscreen, I’m thorough; online, I expect the text to get to the crux of the matter within the first screen-length (and conclude by the end of the second); I have no patience for those sites that force a reader to click through several screens to get to their point(s).  Precisely because I work on the computer, my online time is more valuable; I want conciseness.  And as to reading books, like any true bibliophile I love the feel of a good book in my hands, the tactile experience of knowing just where I am in the context of the whole story; but I also love taking an entire library with me in my Kindle, getting lost in the story either way (and not the format).

Just Curious:

If any of you take the time to read the entire article (by clicking on the photo) below, what are your thoughts?  Or if you have given extensive thought to this issue yourself, what do you think?  What are your reading habits and expectations of physical vs. onscreen vs. online matter?


Image Credit:  Amazon

Image Credit: Amazon


Filed under Articles

9 responses to “The Debate: Online vs. Onscreen vs. Physical Reading

  1. Difficult to read the Kindle while soaking in the bathtub. Accidents do happen. (laughs)
    Seriously, some people like the smell of paper while others like the compactness of the medium. The common denominator is the ease of use. Each to his own, as they say. 🙂

  2. Personally, I’d rather drop the Kindle in the bath than a 200-year-old book! 😉 To each his own, yes, but which do you prefer (outside of the bath!)? Or are both equally enjoyable for you?

  3. Connie White

    I have read several books on my Kindle which I later ordered in paper simply because of charts/diagrams (difficult to read on the Kindle) or because I want them for reference (which as mentioned is difficult to refer back on the e-format). Also in a few cases, I have enjoyed a Kindle book so much that I want to keep it in paper to read again some day. My space available for printed books is quite limited, and I am at the point of having to cull less-favored copies. Otherwise, I think my cognition is equally engaged in either format, and I do not fear losing my cognitive ability with e-readers.

  4. Sorry for the mix up with the saying. I was thinking in the vernacular and writing in English. 😀
    I always like to read the real thing. And frankly, I am only beginning to read e-books. The medium is lightweight but the strain to one’s eyes in the long run is more than reading from a book. If only we don’t have to cut more trees, I still prefer books on paper.

  5. Good to know! I have favourite books in both formats too. I actually prefer the Kindle format for referring back, as I find the word-search function much quicker than searching for a particular passage; I tend to buy key historical reference books on Kindle for that very reason… it speeds up my research and therefore writing efficiency!

  6. E-book eye strain is one thing; the Kindle ink technology takes it to a whole new level though. I can read for hours on Kindle and feel no eye strain, though that cannot be said for reading that amount of time on my Tab…
    I will admit, freely, that it feels great to hold my own work in my hand as a printed book… it is far more rewarding to see that in a tangible form than to know that after all that work, I have only a computer document in the form of a Kindle e-book to show for it!! 😉

  7. Call me sentimental but I prefer the smell of paper. Sadly, I like also to protect the environment. That’s less cutting of trees. I am in a dilemma. 🙂
    E-books could be the answer to less paper. However, I have a better idea (?). Why not do away with reading altogether by listening to audio books.We could do multitasking better. 😀
    Technology evolves in a quicker pace. I am not sure what will they think next after Google glass.

  8. I think there will still be paper books in a few hundred years! 😉 But I like audio books too – I’m listening to one in the evenings right now, as I take a break from writing my next novel; I crochet, and let my mind get lost in a different story to my own. 😀

  9. Antique collectors will always protect us from our own negligence to preserve physical artifacts. I guess a tablet could not be considered a collectible. 🙂
    Good luck with all your projects!

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