The tactility of digital texts

Electronic books are becoming more popular, but research suggests that reading on paper still boasts unique advantages.

Author: Anastasiya Kolesnichenko
Editor: Daniel Jacobson
Artist: Rahel Kiss

Secondary-schoolers across the Scottish border live in the future. When they get ready for classes, they don’t pack their backpacks with textbooks ‒ they charge their iPads instead.

As participants of the Inspire Learning Programme, Scottish children are immersed in their gadgets during lessons. The devices were introduced in the classrooms to help learners develop technology skills and enhance their future employability.

The benefits of this new digital education strategy were plain to see during lockdown. Pupils and teachers who have used technology for study previously adjusted more easily to remote learning. While there are advantages to giving access to electronic books, are there shortcomings of taking paper books away from students?

In Scholastics’ 2012 report, children said that eBooks were superior when they were travelling or did not want their friends knowing what they were reading, but preferred print books for sharing with friends and reading at bedtime. Additionally, participants of Naomi Baron’s 2016 study praised digital reading for the ease of finding material, the ecological benefits and enhanced multitasking. However, a 2019 study from New Zealand found that participants tended to read more thoroughly when engaged with non-online content.

Understanding how reading on paper differs from reading on screens requires some explanation of how the brain interprets written language. Professor Maryanne Wolf of UCLA explained that people are not born with brain circuits dedicated to reading. Thus, when children learn to read, their brains regard letters as physical objects and improvise a new circuit for reading by weaving together various neural tissue regions devoted to other abilities, such as spoken language, motor coordination, and vision. After all, humans did not invent writing until around the fourth millennium B.C. 

The ever-present issue of the potential death of physical books has been extensively studied for decades. In 1992, scientists hypothesised that people read slower and less comprehensively on screens than on paper. Since then, studies have proven this assumption wrong, yet the debate has persisted.

In 2013, Professor Anne Mangen of the University of Stavanger in Norway found that it was harder for students to quickly complete a short-answer quiz based on a text when they read it on a PDF than on paper. From the study, Mangen concluded that the difficulty was linked to a digital format’s poor navigation. Students couldn’t find necessary information efficiently in the text as they had to scroll through it one section at a time. Part of the navigation issue is connected to how people recall information within the text body. When trying to remember, people picture where in a book they read it

In his book Book Was There: Reading in Electronic Times, Andrew Piper noted that humans need to know where they are in time and space. It is important that reading provides a similar sense of orientation that offers the chance to go back and evaluate one’s understanding of a text. An open paperback presents the reader with enough information to orient themself: the left and right pages, a total of eight corners, margins, the thickness of one side of the book. Alternatively, the screen only displays a single virtual page. The length of a digital text is often represented with a scroll or progress bar. Some pagination is preserved: pages are numbered, headers are present, and while eBooks have a unique search function to locate particular phrases, the reader can’t easily see it in the context of the entire text.

These features allude to the desired tactile experiences associated with reading that eReaders don’t provide. A paper book offers a unique experience of touching, folding, and turning the paper. Material pages preserve an atmospheric smell throughout the years and make a distinctive sound when turned. So far, digital texts have not satisfyingly replicated this kind of tactility.

When picked up, a paper book reveals its weight, shape, and size, giving a reader an idea of the text’s length. In contrast, an eReader weighs and looks the same no matter whether you are reading War and Peace or Winnie-the-Pooh. Researchers have found that these discrepancies based on touch create enough ‘haptic dissonance’ to discourage some people from using eReaders.

Underlining, highlighting, drawing, and leaving notes in the margins are tactile ways of interacting with a book that people have always enjoyed. Working on a project called The Archaeology of Reading in Early Modern Europe, academics looked at more than 400 books from the 16th and 17th centuries. They transcribed and translated what Renaissance scholars scribbled on the books they studied, concluding that marginalia reveal an accurate history of personal reading.

Electronic reading devices allow readers to highlight the text and share quotes easily online; electronic academic books also save the teachers’ time on checking the exercises and prepare students for the digital world. Yet, paper books are still undoubtedly better for reading at bedtime and it will take a long time until eReaders recreate a similar sense of tactility, interaction, and smell of a paper book.

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