A piece by Rachel Grate last week over at Mic.com reports on findings that suggest readers understand and retain more of what they read if they read it in a book. “The tactile experience of a book aids this process,” she writes, “from the thickness of the pages in your hands as you progress through the story to the placement of a word on the page.” She adds, “The inability to flip back to previous pages or control the text physically, either through making written notes or bending pages, limits one’s sensory experience and thus reduces long-term memory of the text.”
Last year, in an excellent piece in Scientific American about “the reading brain,” Ferris Jabr reported, “An emerging collection of studies emphasizes that in addition to screens possibly taxing people’s attention more than paper, people do not always bring as much mental effort to screens in the first place. Subconsciously, many people may think of reading on a computer or tablet as a less serious affair than reading on paper.”
I like ereaders for their convenience, but the vague sense of vagueness I regularly experience when I’m reading a book on my Kindle has gnawed at me for a long time. It’s not just the undifferentiated nature of the text on the device, one book to another (though that’s part of it, I think), but it’s the broader absence, truly a deprivation, of that tactile relationship to a singular book, a book unto itself, that disappoints. A book’s savory physical qualities help me to enjoy it (or to dislike it) in its own right. For a novelist, a Kindle provides a neutral platform that can serve to showcase a work in progress. Reviewing a long manuscript on a reading device (and not on a computer screen), a writer gains an evaluative distance offered by the ebook-like presentation. I use mine for that.
In the publishing industry, of course, ereaders have been an enormous benefit to agents and editors, who are in the business of considering unpublished writing day in, day out. But when my editor at Green Writers Press, Dede Cummings, presented me with the first copy of new novel in the flesh, the impact of its unique presence in the world–the silky feel of the cover, the design of the pages, the typefaces, the honest reality of the thing–was profound. And that’s why, just as the advent of television did not spell the end of cinema, ereaders are not about to replace books., even though, in sum, despite their drawbacks, they augment the reading experience.