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E-books harder to read, hard to comprehend

Five years ago I wrote why people read less online than with print:

People spend less time reading online news than reading printed newspapers because reading a screen is more mentally and physically taxing.

I’ve no hard and fast evidence to offer. This is just my observation. It would make a great research project for someone.

Last week The Guardian reported on similar research in Readers absorb less on Kindles than on paper.

The story says researchers at Norway’s Stavanger University asked people to read the same short story on a Kindle and on paper. Those who read on paper did a better job of remembering the events than those who read on a Kindle.

A similar study looked at a school student comprehension test which showed those who read the paper document performed better than those who read digitally.

None of this surprises me, it mirrors my experience. I’ve noticed I get more from reading print than digitally. Also my eyes tire much slower with print.

If I have a serious editing or sub-editing job to do, I’ve learnt that proofreading a printed document is more accurate than working directly onscreen.

I doubt knowing readers absorb less with digital books will change anything. Nothing is likely to stop the world moving from print to pixels. But with e-books there’s a danger we’ll know more and understand less.

3 thoughts on “E-books harder to reader, hard to comprehend”

jmacg says:23/08/2014 at 6:21 pm

I agree with much of what you say. I usually stay away from an LCD screen for proofreading too. But the screen on my high-res tablet is fine for extended reading. It’s very different from reading a computer screen. I can also hold it at a more ergonomic angle.

Even better for extended reading is my Kindle Paperwhite, which I find easier on my eyes than a printed book. Whether I’m remembering what I’m reading as well, I don’t know, but if it’s a novel, I don’t much care either. One thing my Kindle gives me over a printed book is a totally flat screen with all the text looking uniform. That’s got to be good. Opposing pages in a book can often appear with different brightness levels, and the type can be distorted towards the spine. And it can be heavy. I was very pleased I read Eleanor Catton’s huge ‘The Luminaries’ novel in Kindle form.

For serious reading I’d always go for a specialist e-reader because it doesn’t have the distractions that a tablet does. Maybe those distractions are what reduces comprehension?

macdoctor01 says:24/08/2014 at 8:23 pm

Two thought on the research with Kindles. Firstly, the newer touch screens with the higher contrast provide a very similar reading experience compared to paper. This research may simply be too old to be currently relevant. Secondly, the research did not measure reading speed. I suspect that the reading speed with a kindle is significantly higher, because one is unable, subconsciously, to look back at the previous page as in a book.

Bill Bennett says:24/08/2014 at 10:33 pm

It looks as if it might be quite recent. The story mentions touch screens.

As for reading speed, you may be right, but I suspect that ability to look back at earlier pages might be a clue to why print readers have better retention.

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