A couple weeks back, my wife Marina and I were talking about the Kindle we share. She made an interesting observation: Although she loves the convenience of the thing and enjoys reading books on it, she doesn't remember what she reads on it nearly as well as a regular book.
I thought that was pretty insightful -- it rang true to me. I often buy books -- both for pleasure and research -- on the Kindle and also find reading on the Kindle to be just fine (although I prefer books because of the the tactile experience). But I've figured out that if I am using the book for my writing and research, especially for a long-term writing project, I need to have a physical copy someplace nearby where I see the cover now and then. Otherwise, I forget about it.
This means that I often buy two copies of a book --one for the Kindle and the other to stack next to my computer. I often am too impatient to wait for the book to come in the mail or to go to the bookstore, so I buy on the Kindle, and then buy a hard copy if I like it. I need a copy of the book to remind of what I've learned and might need -- something I reinforce it by flipping through each of the 30 or so books I keep in stacks all around me (and the stack of 100 or so articles I've printed out as well) to remind me of stuff I need to remember.
Perhaps it is just Marina and me, but I started wondering if there was any research on the differences between how well people remember things they read in digital versus paper form. I did a quick look and didn't find any, but in doing so, I recalled a conversation that Jeff Pfeffer and I had with Google's Larry Page in (I think) 2002 (We did an interview with him and then had lunch; this was before Google was a public company.). At one point in the conversation, when we asked him about obstacles to Google's success, he said something quite interesting: Research shows that people read considerably slower when they read things on a screen than in paper form. I recall him saying 15% to 20% -- a number supported by research done a few years earlier).
I nosed around the web a bit and found some 2010 research on tablets versus books by Jakob Nielsen that confirmed Larry's point persists in the modern era-- although it looks like the difference between screens and books is less than the research Larry was talking about. Here is the report and I reprint the key findings:
Results: Books Faster Than Tablets
The iPad measured at 6.2% lower reading speed than the printed book, whereas the Kindle measured at 10.7% slower than print. However, the difference between the two devices was not statistically significant because of the data's fairly high variability.
Thus, the only fair conclusion is that we can't say for sure which device offers the fastest reading speed. In any case, the difference would be so small that it wouldn't be a reason to buy one over the other.
But we can say that tablets still haven't beaten the printed book: the difference between Kindle and the book was significant at the p<.01 level, and the difference between iPad and the book was marginally significant at p=.06.
This research doesn't dig into reading comprehension, let alone longer-term memory. But that nearly 11% difference is quite substantial when you think about how much many of us read. And, perhaps I am being sentimental, but it is lovely to see that those old-fashioned books still have an evidence-based edge!
What do you think? Do you feel like you read slower and recall less when you read on screen versus real paper? And is this an affliction only suffered by me and perhaps other other old-timers who learned to read on paper alone?
P.S. If you want to nerd out, I just found a pretty detailed review of this stuff, and it does look like that, as computer screens are getting better (and more people grow up reading on them) that the paper advantage is narrowing and in some cases going away -- although as the above study suggests paper still has the upper hand on key tasks.