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Why It’s Preferable to Read David Sedaris on Paper

New research suggests whether information is presented electronically or on paper affects the way we process it.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Les Chatfield/Flickr)

Old-fashioned books — that is, bound volumes of printed pages — are making something of a comeback. Admittedly, the fact their sales increased in the United States between 2014 and 2015 can be attributed to nostalgia, novelty, or some other fleeting factor.

Then again, perhaps readers of fiction (as well as complex, nuanced non-fiction) have intuited that reading a physical volume is a different, richer experience than doing so on an e-reader.

That’s one implication of new research. A study unveiled Tuesday offers evidence we process texts differently if we are reading them on paper, as opposed to an electronic device.

It finds we remember concrete details better if we’ve read a work on a laptop or tablet. We grasp the larger inferences of a story more thoroughly, however, if we’ve read it in print.

“A common theme in (news) reports is the fear that the modern world’s information inundation is killing humans’ capacity for contemplative, abstract thought,” write Geoff Kaufman of Carnegie Mellon University and Mary Flanagan of Dartmouth College. “Despite the often sensationalist and alarmist nature of these accounts, there is growing evidence that they may not be far from the truth.”

Readers who want to truly grasp great literature would be best-advised to pick up a book.

Their paper, presented at the ACM CHI Conference on human-computer interaction in San Jose, California, describes four studies. For the first, 77 participants filled out a survey designed to indicate whether they were thinking in small-bore or big-picture terms.

They were given the category “Joining the Army,” for example, and then asked which of the following phrases “best describes the behavior for you”: “signing up” (concrete detail), or “Helping the nation’s defense” (big-picture).

Forty participants filled out the survey on a digital screen, while the other 36 did so using pencil and paper. The font size and layout of the pages were identical.

The result: Those who used the classic paper-and-pencil method “exhibited a significantly higher level of preference” for the more abstract of the two choices, compared to their counterparts who used a touch screen. This provided preliminary evidence of Kaufman and Flanagan’s thesis.

The second study directly tested reading comprehension. The 81 participants read a short story by David Sedaris describing “the main character’s memories of a holiday visit to his family home. The story was selected for the study due to its high level of rich detail, and deeper inferences about the broader meaning of the narrative events and their implications.”

Forty-two participants read the story as a physical print-out, while 39 did so on a screen. All then took a multiple-choice test in which they were asked to recall 12 items regarding “specific details” and 12 gauging their “understanding of higher-level inferences that the author intended readers to glean from the story.”

Those who read the story on a screen earned better scores, on average, on the detail-oriented questions. But those who read it on paper scored higher on questions in which they had to tease out what Sedaris was trying to say.

This pattern was confirmed in two additional studies. Its causes aren’t entirely clear, but the researchers have some ideas.

“The ever-increasing demands of multitasking, divided attention, and information overload that individuals encounter in their use of digital technologies may cause them to retreat to the less cognitively demanding lower end of the concrete-abstract continuum,” they speculate. They add that “this tendency may be so ingrained” that it kicks in whenever one picks up an electronic device.

As Kaufman and Flanagan note, there are times when concentrating on concrete bits of information is advantageous. Their results suggest you might want to work from an e-reader when following detailed instructions — say, building a piece of IKEA furniture, or cooking a fancy meal. (A Kindle for the kitchen?)

They add that there may be ways to tweak the e-book experience to negate their negative impact. These findings — if replicated and confirmed — could encourage digital designers to come up with “strategies for encouraging users to see the ‘forest’ as well as the ‘trees.’”

For now, however, readers who want to truly grasp great literature would be best-advised to pick up a book. When perusing Proust, opt for paper.