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danny e bloom

Great post, Bob. You sounds like u has been reading Danny Bloom's blog posts over the past 5 years about this very subject, as well as Danny's contention, er hunch, that reading on paper is superior, brain-chemistry wise, for info processing, info retention and info analysis, not due to convenience or smell of book or ereader design, but due to the way the reading brain reads on paper surfaces vs reading on screens. In fact, as you might know, Danny, Tufts 1971, coined the term "screening" for what we do when we "read" on screens. Great piece.

My hunch is that future studies using MRI and PET SCAN machines will show that reading on paper lights up different and superior regions of the brain for three things: info processing in the reading brain, info retention and info analysis. At the moment nobody is doing this research as it is not sexy, and is very expensive and nobody wants to go down this road. But Danny Bloom does and Danny Bloom knows that his hunch will be provem right, not by anecdotal evidence but by hard science, neuroscience. I have 25 PHD professors in my corner now but nobody will go public because they fear for their careers and their images. But watch. I am right about this. I think you know this too, Bob, in your gut. Right?


I second Styleabaad, I loovoe reading but it must be with an actual book. To truly understand and like a book, I must turn the pages and hear that sound, and smell the paper. It's just too important for me =) Plus, since I have extreme eye dryness I cannot look at a screen too long or they start burning, itching and watering, it's a total disaster.

Jim Brewer

Once I got my Kindle, I began to acquire more books in more areas than I did in print because of better prices. I experimented a lot more. I have a fondness for non-fiction and science. I don't know how others reacted when they got their Kindle, but the wider range of material I chose may have something to do with reading slower. It is harder to race through quantum physics than a good mystery. But these are purely subjective issues and offer little in solving the question about reading speed and comprehension on digital and print. We need a real study with good experimental design.

Bob Sutton


Thanks for the comment, I love your hypothesis that a Kindle may turn out to be like a microwave. Brilliant.


Karole Sutherland

Like many others, I love the convenience of my Kindle and read more quickly on it but find it more difficult to retain what I read. And like others, I am finding that for books I want to refer to and use as a resource, such as managment/business books, I am also buy a physical copy. I find it impossible to browse the e-copy to look for the key ideas or refresh my memory on things that resonated. Previously I used the highlighter feature of the Kindle but I am doing so less and less as it seems to disrupt the reading experience and the highlights are of little use in a stand-alone document that is very hard to read. I will continue to buy business books on the Kindle as long as they are significantly cheaper than 'real' books. If I like the book and believe it to be of long-term value as a resource I'll buy a second, physical copy.
Fiction is a different story (pun intended). It's Kindle only for me because I rarely read a fiction book twice, I can read much more quickly on the reader and always have a book close at hand. Like many electronic gadgets, with experience we are learning how to integrate them into our lives. Remember when we thought we'd cook whole meals in a microwave - there were even microwave cookbooks. Now we realize that they are special purpose appliances with a narrow but important use. Reheating leftovers and making popcorn.

Ally Polly

Hi Bob!

I find I read faster on a Kindle, mostly because I am reminded of how many other things I can or have to read so in fact reading this way, for me, is a "have to".
Reading a book is a " want to" for me. I love the feel of the cover, the typeface, the sense of progress I am making as I read along, and so I find I read more thoroughly and carefully, and so more slowly.

1. Reading online always feels like I'm skimming and regardless of what I am reading, the experience is always the same -
I miss the differences in how paper can feel, how different fonts move your eye more quickly down the page, how the cover is designed etc. For me, the benefits of ease and portability are not worth making the whole experience so generic.
( It's kind of like always watching a movie sitting on the same sofa, in the same room, with the same person, eating the same snacks.
After a while, the movies are all a blur and you remember the upholstery on the couch more than anything about the story)

2. Reading a actual book provides context and memory and the physical reality of the book is almost like a supporting character I will remember along with the plot. I can visualize all my favorite books so clearly- can't you? A book that's been held and shared becomes something personal, and distinct. And not interchangeable. I have greater recall because I have richer memories as well as visual associations that go with the
It's like seeing a great movie at The Zeigfield as opposed to the Multiplex in the Mall. Chances are you remember the popcorn, the line to buy tickets, the weather, what you wore, and probably even saved the stub.


Bob, have you seen any such comparison that tested comprehension of the materials? For example, it is known that if the material is written in weird fonts, the reading speed definitely goes down, but readers understand it better. I think that one should look into whether screen reading is really bad, or simply the weights of comprehension/speed are shifted.


Ugh, you started off with data and then veered into "what do you think?" when you know well that what people think, especially about themselves, is often totally wrong.

Two things on the topic:

1. Studies show that disfluency increases retention. That is, if something is harder to read (weird font, for ex.) people remember it better.

2. The iPad and Kindle reading experiences are so skeuomorphci that there are "pages", so that part of the experience is the same. You _can_ easily remember where on the page you read something.


I don't find there's much difference in how fast I can read on the Kindle, vs a book--the average novel takes me roughly two hours on either--but I do absolutely agree that when it comes to reference reading, I strongly prefer a book to my Kindle.

Also, although I adore my Kindle, and due to the fact that I can carry my entire library around with me at all times, and thus, have gone from reading 1-1.5 paperbacks a day, to 2-2.5 novels on my Kindle per day, I most definitely find that I don't remember things I read on my Kindle as well as things I read in a physical book.

As others have mentioned, I think this is because the experience is different--there's less visual stimulation, and you no longer have cues that tie into what you're reading.

For instance--when reading a paperback, I tend to visually memorize whole page layouts--so that I know on what side of the book and at what point of a page, and approximately how far into a book a certain memorable phrase or scene might be--but I haven't a clue where anything is, in my Kindle.

Also, when reading a paperback, if my attention flags for a moment or two, or become confused by something, I'll stop reading and go look at the cover...look inside the cover to see who the artist was; read the back cover; look inside the back of the book, to read up on the author. I'll examine the typeface, and see if I recognize its name. I'll finger the pages, and enjoy the texture--maybe sniff them a bit. In short, I find small bites of information that include pictures, that help "re-anchor" me.

On the other hand, without that, I find myself reading books on the Kindle and not even knowing what the title of the book I just read was!

I miss my little "re-anchoring" exercise, on my Kindle--but not enough to give up its convenience! :)

David C

The comparison as to reading speed is irrelevant if in practice you read few books but read many Kindle items because of the machine's convenience. This is certainly the case for me.


I also noticed that when I read on the phone (kindle app for iphone) I could hardly remember AT ALL what I read, but when I read it on the larger ipad screen, i retained more, at least in the short term. I figured there was something about having the paragraphs in my visual field that mattered, even though I never realized it. I also realize now how much I go back and re-read while reading a paper book. I think I do that less on the digital versions.


I have come to a similar conclusion. I enjoy reading fiction and other books that I will not want to refer to again on my e-reader, however, prefer business reading in hardcopy. I also find that when I read something relevant to our work, I enjoy passing it on to my colleagues- something I can't do with my e-books. Whether it impacts memory poses an interesting question, especially in light of "go green" initiatives. There is great debate amongst those within our office who like to print files/reports vs those wanting to reduce paper utilization and have everything electronic. I've noted a generational factor in this debate as well, which ties into the previous comment regarding practice.


+1 to Jeremy.

I believe that the issue of learning (remembering) from digital screens is much more relevant to those with a strong visual memory.

Not a big deal for me, but my wife always describes remembering where on the page she could "see" the information, how "deep" into the book she needs to go to find the page, and what the nearby pages looked like to help her more quickly locate the exact page needed.

Sounds like a great UI problem for some bright young soul.


Quick Suggestion: Get Amazon Prime.

You can "borrow" one book a month to read. So borrow the book and if you like it, buy it. (I actually do this with my public library as well. They have unlimited check outs of kindle books)


I arrived to a similar conclusion as you: the Kindle is great for reading fiction work, but not very useful when reading non-fiction. I read 'The No Asshole Run' in the kindle and I used the highlight feature quite a bit. Yet looking back at my 'notes' is not very useful without the context of that note ready available. I just finished 'The Progress Principle' on hard copy and it is so great to be able to skim through it, look at my notes, highlights, etc. I keep 're-learning' in this way. This is much more difficult to do with the Kindle.

Jeremy Adams

No one has managed to nail it yet. Here's why reading a paper book is better than on-screen: it's the connection between making visual image "photos" in your mind, connected with the words on the page, that makes reading a physical book faster and more memorable. Our eyes are made to scan back and forth, not up and down, and we make mental images to help us remember things - faces, locations, words, characters on a page, etc. A screen screws that up for us. The words keep changing, but the physical thing doesn't. Words scroll vertically in a web browser - which is harder on our eyes - or the "page" just keeps refreshing to reveal the same flat, perfectly flawless light grey pixels in the case of a Kindle. You can't keep a good mental map of the location or what it looked like when you read that way.

I'm all for digital copies of the printed word when it's stuff I either 1) want to have readily available wherever I am (textbooks), or 2) am not likely to revisit (articles online). However, I still prefer reading material I want to really retain in glorious dead-tree format. I'm reading for an MBA class tonight using online HBR articles only -why waste the paper?! - but I'll go to bed reading a physical copy of "Churchill: A Life" because I want to soak that story into my own life - to reflect on it and ponder it. It's always been about short-term vs. long-term retention for me.


Hi Bob,

I remember coming across a neuroscience blog post that included a study on paper media making a deeper impact on the brain than digital media. The spatial component of paper adds a dimension to the material that's less pronounced in digital.

Take a read:


Joe Ranft

I find that reading a paper book is like taking a trip, and where you are physically in the book tells you how far you are on the journey. That's all lost reading an ebook. There's no sense of place within the book. I look down at the page number or percentage complete or that crazy number the Kindle gives you of screens, but it's not the same. I can't pick up a Kindle version of "The Sun Also Rises" and find the fishing scene in Burguete, but I can easily flip pages in my book version and find it now 27 years later. I worry this is some form of memory muscle that books exercise that ebooks never work out, like the difference between stair machine and actual stairs.

Bob Sutton


I like that -- building on what you are saying, it is not only touch and engagement, it is also the smell of the paper. And some of my oldest and most used books smell like coffee and others things I have spilled on them. I also have a couple books I got from an old professor who smoked a pipe and I can still smell that on those pages -- a Kindle can't do that.

Andrew Boysen (@boysenandrew)

Part of the question needs to be how engaged you are. With a physical book, you can highlight and write notes in the margins, or you may just be looking at the pictures. With a Kindle, you may not do either of those, and remember less, or you might use the highlighting and note functionality, and also tweet specific quotes/excerpts, engaging friends and family.

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