The shift from print to digital reading may lead to more than changes in speed and physical processing. It may come at a cost to understanding, analyzing, and evaluating a text. Much of Mangen’s research focusses on how the format of reading material may affect not just eye movement or reading strategy but broader processing abilities. One of her main hypotheses is that the physical presence of a book—its heft, its feel, the weight and order of its pages—may have more than a purely emotional or nostalgic significance. People prefer physical books, not out of old-fashioned attachment but because the nature of the object itself has deeper repercussions for reading and comprehension. “Anecdotally, I’ve heard some say it’s like they haven’t read anything properly if they’ve read it on a Kindle. The reading has left more of an ephemeral experience,” she told me. Her hunch is that the physicality of a printed page may matter for those reading experiences when you need a firmer grounding in the material. The text you read on a Kindle or computer simply doesn’t have the same tangibility.
In new research that she and her colleagues will present for the first time at the upcoming conference of the International Society for the Empirical Study of Literature and Media, in Torino, Italy, Mangen is finding that that may indeed be the case. She, along with her frequent collaborator Jean-Luc Velay, Pascal Robinet, and Gerard Olivier, had students read a short story—Elizabeth George’s “Lusting for Jenny, Inverted” (their version, a French translation, was called “Jenny, Mon Amour”)—in one of two formats: a pocket paperback or a Kindle e-book. When Mangen tested the readers’ comprehension, she found that the medium mattered a lot. When readers were asked to place a series of events from the story in chronological order—a simple plot-reconstruction task, not requiring any deep analysis or critical thinking—those who had read the story in print fared significantly better, making fewer mistakes and recreating an over-all more accurate version of the story. The words looked identical—Kindle e-ink is designed to mimic the printed page—but their physical materiality mattered for basic comprehension.
Note that the printed book is being compared here to the Kindle, which means that the distractions of connectivity I talked about in the previous post aren’t relevant here. (I’m assuming that they mean an e-ink Kindle rather than a Kindle Fire, though it would be important to know that for sure.)
My hunch, for what it’s worth, is that it is indeed “the physicality of the printed page” that makes a significant difference — in a couple of specific senses.
First of all, the stability of the text on a printed page allows us (as most readers know) to have visual memories of where passages are located: we see the page quadratically, as it were, divided into upper left, lower left, upper right, and lower right. This has mnemonic value.
Second, the three-dimensionality of a book allows us to connect certain passages with places in the book: when we’re near the beginning of a book, we’re getting haptic confirmation of that through the thinness on one side and thickness on the other, and as we progress in our reading the object in our hands is continually providing us with information that supplements what’s happening on the page.
A codex is then an informationally richer environment than an e-reader.
There are, I suspect, ways that software design can compensate for some of this informational deficit, though I don’t know how much. It’s going to be interesting to see whether any software engineers interest themselves in this problem.
As for me, I suspect I’ll continue to do a lot of reading electronically, largely because, as I’ve mentioned before, I’m finding it harder to get eyewear prescriptions that suit my readerly needs. E-readers provide their own lighting and allow me to change the size of the type — those are enormous advantages at this stage of my life. I would love to see the codex flourish, but I don’t know whether it will flourish for me, and I am going to have some really difficult decisions to make as a teacher. Can I strongly insist that my students use codexes while using electronic texts myself?