Let me preface this article by saying that this is by no means a bash on the convenient and practical ereaders that are slowly taking over the publishing world.  My only purpose here is to “just state the facts, ma’am.” Dragnet, anybody?
It’s no secret that there is something powerful in an e-reader’s functions and performance that has influenced so many people to purchase. Over the 2011 shopping season, according to a January 2012 Pew Internet and American Life Project report, e-reader ownership practically doubled.  Now, roughly 1 in 3 Americans own an e-reader.  Ebooks are officially commanding 20 percent of the consumer book industry, with $3.042 billion in revenue in 2012, according to the Association of American Publishers and the Book Industry Study Group’s 2012 BookStats annual report.
e-reader, via flickr, ceslava.comWhile these strong numbers are promising for the e-reader movement, yet another report reveals that many American consumers refuse to give up their hard-covers and paperbacks.  Verso Digital’s “2011 Survey of Book-Buying Behavior,” indicates that half of all readers don’t intend to buy an e-reader, and even those who do have e-readers are continuing to buy both print and digital books.

How can this be?  Doesn’t the average American consumer want to have the immediate gratification of finding and purchasing a book from their sofa at home?  What about gaining the ability to carry hundreds, even thousands of books in one lightweight, transportable device?

Pile of books in different colors

There must be something that analog books provide that digital books never will.

When asked why we continue to read printed books, most of us will respond that there is a certain joy we feel when turning the page of a book.  Other visceral emotions can be attached to book reading, such as feeling the weight of a book in our hands, the smell of ink and paper, and the crinkling, crackling sound of a thin page. Actually reading and comprehending the content of the book is just one aspect of why we continue to include reading in our list of favorite hobbies.

Man reading a bookIf we look at how we react to printed words from a rational, scientific approach, we’ll see a refined explanation of why our brain connects more significantly with print. We’ve talked about how the brain digests digital messages and printed messages on a direct mail piece differently; we can only assume that the same is true with printed books vs digital books.

According to a highly talked-about article (see Fast Company and this blogger), the physicality and topography of the printed text really defines how we interact with the words and the context in which they were placed.  Ferris Jabr writes in The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens  that the brain actually registers individual words as physical objects, and complete text as the physical landscape.As we read, we use the objects (words) and landscapes (texts) as a mapping mechanism, helping our brains form memories much like we remember directions by picturing landmarks.  Here’s what Jabr has to say about mind-mapping with an e-reader:

Although e-readers like the Kindle and tablets like the iPad re-create pagination—sometimes complete with page numbers, headers and illustrations—the screen only displays a single virtual page: it is there and then it is gone. Instead of hiking the trail yourself, the trees, rocks and moss move past you in flashes with no trace of what came before and no way to see what lies ahead.

As we read physical, printed words, we find that we can better navigate the text and map the journey, making the content easier to remember.  Most screen readers, tablets, and e-readers disrupt this process, taking away our brain’s native mapping cues.  To better understand the practical application of this finding, a Norwegian university study proved that students performed better in a reading comprehension test when reading print vs reading digital.

While we’ve all heard talk that “print is dead” and that “everything is digital,” it seems to me that printed publications will stick around for our brain’s sake.  (We can’t ignore what the brain wants, now can we?)  Though shiny objects come and go, our human nature and interaction with physical books will become more apparent and we will feel as Thomas Jefferson did: “I cannot live without books.”

Bonus points:  unless you are a super fast reader and are consuming more than 25 books a year, books are the more environmentally friendly choice over e-readers. 

By +Maggie Young,



  1. Interesting – now if I could just have this message in my mailbox, I’d file it – but since it’s a blog, guess I’ll just have to read it on my digital device… 🙂

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