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Paper Books Offer Better Reading Comprehension Than E-Books

By Wesley Fenlon

We love our Kindles, but physical books have them beat when it comes to remembering and understanding a text.

The death of paper, argues technology writer Nicholas Carr, has been greatly exaggerated. This is an old trend: a new medium pops up, be it the radio or television or the Internet, and some speculate that the book or newspaper or magazine is surely doomed. When e-readers and tablets and e-books arrived, their popularity seemed to be a death sentence for hardbacks and paperbacks. But, writes Carr, that sentence won't be carried out anytime soon.

"E-book sales, which skyrocketed after the launch of Amazon’s Kindle in late 2007, have fallen back to earth in recent months—they rose by just 5 percent in the first quarter of this year, according to publishers’ reports—while sales of hardcovers and trade paperbacks have remained surprisingly resilient," he writes in the article Paper Versus Pixel. According to Carr's research, paper books still make up 75 percent of book sales in the United States. And that's not counting the used book market, which is also on an upswing.

So why does this really matter? Unless you're a fanatic of the digital or printed word, knowing the economic trends of the industry isn't especially important. But this is: There's a very real difference between reading a paper book and reading a digital one, whether it's on an LCD or an e-ink screen. According to some studies, physical books actually help us retain information better. Our brains simply react to printed words differently than digital ones.

"The physical presence of the printed pages turns out to be important to the mind’s ability to navigate written works"

"Some scientists believe that our brain actually interprets written letters and words as physical objects—a reflection of the fact that our minds evolved to perceive things, not symbols," writes Carr. "The physical presence of the printed pages, and the ability to flip back and forth through them, turns out to be important to the mind’s ability to navigate written works, particularly lengthy and complicated ones. We quickly develop a mental map of the contents of a printed text, as if its argument or story were a voyage unfolding through space. If you’ve ever picked up a book that you read long ago and discovered that your hands were able to locate a particular passage quickly, you’ve experienced this phenomenon."

The spatial awareness Carr cites improves our understanding of what we read. Simply put, physical books are better for reading comprehension. Digital books offer their own advantages, of course. But it looks like Carr's ode to the history of paper is right: Print still isn't going anywhere.