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Why Humans Prefer Print Books

By: , Posted on: January 4, 2016

print books
Photo: posted by Randy on Wikimedia Commons (signed by JR Robertson)

Printed book sales are rising and eBook sales are slowing. Recent studies have shown that reading comprehension and retention are better with “old-style” printed books. I believe that there are several reasons why people interact better with paper books.

When you hold and read a book, you not only absorb the words and meaning, but you also subconsciously remember the physical location of the words. Whether a paragraph is towards the beginning or end of the book, on the left or right facing page, or at the top or bottom of the page, you remember it. I still recall the physical location of certain passages of Moby Dick I read decades ago.

This physical orientation memory was an important aspect of human evolution and multiple sections of the brain are devoted to it (in the frontal, temporal, and parietal lobes). In order to learn our territory and to avoid getting lost in Paleolithic times, these visual and spatial clues were (and still are) necessary for our survival. Think about your commute to work. You no doubt rely more on landmarks than street names, and as you drive down the road you learn the location of new and recurrent hazards such as pot holes. I believe this combined verbal and spatial memorization is what makes reading a real printed book a better learning experience.

Looking at my old college textbooks, the highlighted words, creased spines, and folded page corners still reference the key aspects that are just as important now as they were then. My most used textbooks show wear from frequent use. Although buying a shiny new book is exciting for avid readers, one feature of real books is that they show age and imperfections with use. Well-used books have this human flawed quality that digital media cannot convey.

When you read a long printed book, you consciously or subconsciously track your progress by sensing the ratio of the pages read to the pages yet to be read. If the middle section is less interesting, you are more likely to ploy through by being encouraged that you are making physical progress through the book. This tactile feel of progress is an analog estimation and is more natural than a digital page number. If an eBook drags in the middle chapters, how often have you closed the file, never to open it again? Unless the subject is truly compelling, I find it harder to finish an entire eBook.

The automotive industry has learned that interior textures are a significant part of the car buying and car owning experience. People prefer contact with textured warm materials, not cold hard plastic and glass. Holding a book is a pleasant experience, whereas some people are getting wrist and neck strains from holding electronic devices towards their faces all day.

Humans are analog and prefer analog information. Although we relish our high definition televisions, it is only because we need high resolution to simulate analog reality. We crave analog input and want to see objects, not pixels. Reading a real book gives us the analog experience that our brains evolved to process.

Supporting Evidence:

“…a study of about 800 respondents, found that nearly 70% of consumers feel it is unlikely that they will abandon print books by 2016, as they have an emotional and visceral/sensory attachment to print books and possibly consider them a luxury item. Additionally, 60% of downloaded ebooks are never read in the U.S., despite their perceived popularity. Lack of eye strain when reading from paper versus digital, the feel and look of paper, and the ability to add a print book to a bookshelf or library are cited as the top three reasons why consumers opt for printed books”
http://www.econtentmag.com/Articles/News/News-Feature/Ebook-Sales-Slow-Strategies-Shift-95079.htm

“British book stores have good news for bibliophiles, reporting that more people have been buying physical books recently. What’s more, sales of e-readers have apparently slumped according to their reports. Waterstones, a U.K. book store chain which also sells Amazon’s Kindle, told the Financial Times that demand for the e-reader has all but disappeared.”
http://time.com/3661173/book-sales-increase-ereaders-slump/#3661173/book-sales-increase-ereaders-slump/

“…if this first store succeeds, it’s possible that Amazon will expand its book-selling empire with the very thing that it once helped to destroy: bookstores.”
http://www.theverge.com/2015/11/2/9661556/amazon-books-first-physical-bookstore-opening-seattle

“…evidence from laboratory experiments, polls and consumer reports indicates that modern screens and e-readers fail to adequately recreate certain tactile experiences of reading on paper that many people miss and, more importantly, prevent people from navigating long texts in an intuitive and satisfying way. In turn, such navigational difficulties may subtly inhibit reading comprehension. Compared with paper, screens may also drain more of our mental resources while we are reading and make it a little harder to remember what we read when we are done”
http://www.salon.com/2013/04/14/do_e_readers_inhibit_reading_comprehension_partner/

“…students comprehended traditional books at a much higher level than they comprehended the same material when read on an iPad… while students in 18 classrooms were highly motivated by their interactions with interactive e-books created using Apple’s iBooks Author software, they often skipped over text, where the meat of the information was.”
http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/DigitalEducation/2014/04/early_concerns_about_e-books_e_1.html

This article first appeared on Memeburn.com. Click here for the original.

MarkHomDr. Mark Hom is a Johns Hopkins University trained biologist, an award-winning medical illustrator, an interventional radiologist, an educator of young doctors, an Elsevier author, and an avid fitness cyclist. Dr. Hom’s work with Greg LeMond in their recent book The Science of Fitness: Power, Performance, and Endurance explains how the human body, various organ systems, and individual cells function in the biologic process of exercise. He is currently a member of the Department of Radiology at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, VA, USA.

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  • Mark Hom

    Here is the correct link for the original Memeburn.com article: http://memeburn.com/2015/11/the-science-behind-why-humans-prefer-printed-books/

    Here is a link to a list of my SciTech Connect articles: http://scitechconnect.elsevier.com/author/mark-hom/

  • Pingback: Why Humans Prefer Print Books | SCI-TECH()

  • Vyas Chady

    I think that print books are being used as a decorations these days, and it is all due to social media photo sharing increase. I had a hundred print books plus or minus 10 to 30 roughly, but have since Kindle and Google books and PDFs thousands of books these days that I carry in my pocket. And in the past couple of years have seen an increase of people who are taking selfies these days, in front of a fantastic library of those fancy hard cover colourful books. It does look good, you see and I was thinking how the heck do I do the same, maybe I should print a list of the books that I have in a sheet of paper, and put it behind my face and take a photo too, but then I would look like an idiot. And then I was thinking how the heck do I show the 3 gigabytes of PDFs and encyclopedias that I have on Google drive, that’s gonna be a problem, maybe I should make a video and scroll down the 10 thousands papers and put my face in front of the screen and smile for the camera. But, maybe not. Someone come in my house they will not see the display, but I carry it all in my pocket when I visit your display. Peace.

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