Print or Screen: The Zen of Reading

A very interesting post landed in my in-box yesterday. It came from The Chronicle of Higher Education and it looked at a recent paper by Anne Mangen in the journal of Research in Reading (2008, pp. 404 – 419), titled “Hypertext fiction reading: haptics and immersion.” (I know..absolutely gripping title)

Mangen touches on a fascinating aspect of reading, specifically, the tangibility of reading. The look, feel, heft and smell of a book vs. the disembodied experience of reading from an electronic screen: “Unlike print texts, digital texts are ontologically intangible and detached from the physical and mechanical dimension of their material support, namely, their computer or e-book (or other devices, such as the PDA, the iPod or the mobile phone”

I’ve always disliked reading from a screen. Often, I even print off documents so I can review the old fashioned way. And I love books. If you want to want me to crack like a cheap plastic wine glass at a family reunion, put me in a room for an hour with no reading materials. I’ll be pacing in a cold sweat in a matter of minutes. I have multiple screens I can read from, and have read a few e-books, but the experience for me is a mere shadow of that feeling of turning a physical page (this, by the way, is what Mangen means by “haptics”).

Mangen says that the technology that enables digital reading actually gets in the way of a pure imaginative rendering of a fictional world. A print book has no distracting technology. A Kindle or iPhone does. These are some pretty heady concepts, but they touch on that vague feeling of dissatisfaction I have whenever I read something in digital form. I just don’t like it as much as a book, so while the rationality of keeping hundreds or thousands of books on my iPhone appeals to me, I still have several bookshelves and cardboard boxes full of books at home. Amazon loves me..a lot!

This whole topic becomes more material to me as I’m getting ready to self-publish my own book. Amazon will be producing the print version, but there will also be an electronic version. I wonder if my preference for paper is a generational thing. One of the topics I explore in the book is the difference between Digital Natives (people born after 1985 who grew up with digital technology) and Digital Immigrants (people born before 1985 who adopted digital technology as adults). Or is it deeper than that? Do we have some inherent bond with books? Do women feel differently than men?

I’ve launched a quick survey to explore this further. It’s only three questions long, so will take you about 40 seconds. I’ll share the results in a future post.

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