“I like the feeling of it,” Schembari said, reading under natural light in a campus atrium, his smartphone next to him. “I like holding it. It’s not going off. It’s not making sounds.”
Textbook makers, bookstore owners and college student surveys all say millennials still strongly prefer print for pleasure and learning, a bias that surprises reading experts given the same group’s proclivity to consume most other content digitally.
I can’t say I’m particularly surprised by the findings of this study. The observation that resonated most with me was that, among students who read hardcopy books, the likelihood of multitasking was 1%, versus 90% for those reading books on a screen. In some ways, the best feature of the book in today’s age is not portability, affordability, or aesthetics—but simplicity.
Unlike digital devices, books don’t have notifications, ringtones, Facetime, or messaging. At most, a book might have an index, illustrations, and a few end notes. But that’s about it.
The other advantage of books, of course, is their physical nature. While reading, you can see and even feel the progress you’ve made, which, as linguist Naomi Baron posits, helps in “building a physical map in my mind of where things are,” which researchers suggest aids our comprehension.
None of this is to say that the physical book is inherently better than digital. The two are entirely different forms, and the subject matter can affect which form is better for the task.
Personally, I find that my reading is split about 50/50 between digital and print (most of my long-form reading is on paper, whereas I find reading short-form articles far easier on my smartphone). The article cited above is right in pointing out that certain textbooks, such as those concerned with the sciences, can be greatly enhanced by virtue of being digital.
Perhaps more important than the finding that young people prefer to read on paper, is the idea that our assumptions about the superiority of digital versus analogue are not always correct.
The smart watch, for example has been touted as the next big thing, but personally, I’m ambivalent. I appreciate the singular nature of my wristwatch. It tells the time—in my choice of 12 or 24 hour—and it has a stopwatch. I’ve spent enough time trying to tame the onslaught of notifications from my smartphone, that I don’t really fancy having another device to unexpectedly interrupt my day.
I could be proven wrong, of course. I don’t doubt the potential of technology, and the information it can provide us, to make us healthier and more productive. If smart watches encourage exercise, help us get places on time, and allow us to get help quicker in an emergency, that is great.
But at the same time, we mustn’t fall into the trap of trying to fit every conceivable feature into every new device that is developed.
When the objective is to learn new information, or delve into a new novel, then sometimes a paperback, a quiet place, and a cup of coffee is the optimal combination.