Tuesday, August 30, 2011

VDT vs. Vellum Redux

Over the summer, Keera and I have been talking about books and how we read them. The discussion started with Do We Need Dead Trees?, then popped over to Paper or Pixel? -- and continued in comments that brought up such issues as shelf space, dictionaries, sharing books, device varieties, the need for electricity, reading on the beach, in bed & on airplanes, notes & highlights, instant purchasing, the weight of books, sustainability, distractions, and text size.

You'd think that we've pretty much plumbed the depths of the subject -- but you'd be wrong! Jack Shafer at Slate.com, who has alternated between print and online when reading his New York Times, has discovered that media matters when it comes to the retention of information:
The researchers found that the print folks "remember significantly more news stories than online news readers"; that print readers "remembered significantly more topics than online newsreaders"; and that print readers remembered "more main points of news stories." When it came to recalling headlines, print and online readers finished in a draw.
I recognize the inevitability of the electronic word. In fact, in some ways, I've already given into it. I hardly ever write letters anymore. And I no longer have a subscription to a daily newspaper, but rather get my news from a number of online sources. There are things I still miss about having that paper delivered to my porch every morning, and Shafer's article reminded me that I do suffer from anemic retention and attention when it comes to the news. This was something I already knew -- for whatever reason, it's harder for me to peruse the morning news when it's on a screen.

I do still subscribe to a number of magazines and with one exception,* I can't really imagine reading any of them on a computer, reading device or phone. I like flipping through the pages of my cooking magazines (Cooking Light and Saveur) and tearing out recipes and tidbits for later. Vanity Fair has extended articles that are more satisfying to read in print, and even though they sometimes make me sneeze, I think I'd miss that smell of a magazine full of those perfume sample pages. And, of course, Smithsonian and National Geographic always feature amazing images that pop out of the page, which just wouldn't be the same on a small screen.

As far as books go, while I still cling to the paper versions, it's not out of stubbornness so much as inertia and thrift. I have a house full of books (have I mentioned that my spouse reads for a living?). I like the way they feel and smell and behave. I have books that I like to revisit, and many others that I haven't yet read. I don't particularly want to have to pay, again, for something I already possess.

But I do have a few books loaded on my phone's book app for occasions when I'm stuck waiting somewhere and need something to read -- they're old classics (Dickens, Austen) from the public domain that didn't cost me anything. It's nice to be able to keep what used to be heavy tomes in a little pocket of my purse, and I have to admit to occasional frustration that my old books have not yet sprouted CTRL+F buttons.

But my experience bears out that which Shafer discusses. Perhaps it's just that I'm old and my brain was hardwired too early for the onscreen reading experience to be as satisfying as reading on a page. For me, a glowing screen prompts me to scan, whereas paper makes me want to slow down and read. I wonder if younger readers feel that distinction. And I wonder if I will evolve...

ps. How would you ebook readers feel about getting one with a soundtrack tossed in the mix?

pps. Forget the books. What about the writers?

*it was in my print copy of The Week that I first ran across Shafer's article, but since it's such a short-format, linky kind of thing, it's the one magazine I get that I could probably just as easily read online. But I still like it better on paper.

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