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Science Explains Why The Printed Word Is Still More Powerful Than Digital

The demise of the printed word has been seriously exaggerated.
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The pen is mightier than the sword, but how does it compare against the iPad? For a while it seemed like a war with only one possible outcome. Kindles, tablets and bite-sized online learning modules would sweep away the dusty world of books. For the internet generation, convenience was everything and technology always triumphed.

It hasn’t worked out like that. Studies have found that, in the US, print books are still far more popular than digital versions, and even that the most voracious print readers are young people - those so-called digital natives. In the UK, sales of printed books rose by 7% in 2016.

Print speaks to your senses

So what is it about the printed word that keeps us coming back for more? On the face of it, a page of prose has the same meaning on the screen of an eReader as it does on the page of a printed book. It’s just that with an eReader you can cart 500 novels, biographies and textbooks around in your rucksack.

But book lovers don’t care for such dry practicality. They love books. Linguist Naomi Baron collected hundreds of opinions on print and digital reading for her book Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World and found that the first thing keeping us wedded to the printed word is its aesthetic appeal. Her respondents loved everything from “the smell of the paper” to being able to feel where they were in a book.

Writer Tara Guha, author of award-winning thriller Untouchable Things, agrees that books can be a ‘sensory delight’.

“When we handle a ‘real’ book we react to how it feels in our hand, its smell, the look of the cover, even the sound of the pages turning,” she says. “We can feast our eyes on the books on our shelves, take them down, and as we open them we remember not just the story of the book, but what was going on in our life at that time. Flipping the pages gives us an emotional hit.”

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Print is more memorable

And there’s growing evidence that not only do we find printed words more aesthetically appealing, we also find them more memorable. Partly, that’s because print comes with less distractions – email notifications never pop up on the pages of a book – but it’s not the only reason.

Roger Dooley, author of Brainfluence: 100 Ways to Persuade and Convince Consumers with Neuromarketing, believes spatial memory may play a role. “When you read a paper book, you can often remember where you saw something - approximately how far in it was, where it was located on the page,” he says.

“You may even recall its appearance - say, at the start of a paragraph after some white space. Ebooks offer enormous convenience, but you lose that extra information you get from a paper book.”

That information may help messages to stick in our minds, and research by Anne Mangen of Norway’s Stavanger University has found that we absorb less when reading on a Kindle than we do when reading print. When Kindle and print readers were both given a short story to read, the digital group did significantly worse when asked to place events from the story in the correct order afterwards.

That has clear implications for learning, and we also tend to skim read on screen. Media trainer Hazel Davis advises her students to read their work in print.

She says: “Digital is great, of course, but I often advise my students to print out work before they submit it because reading print is a different experience from reading on screen. You skim less and focus more and I think you’re more likely to spot mistakes on paper.”

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Print is trusted

Roger Dooley suggests that print might be more powerful because it is more trusted. Historically, books were seen to confer wisdom, and newspapers to speak truth to power. Neither was always true, but print still commands a respect that digital can’t match.

“Of course, the bar is much lower for print today - anyone can self-publish a book that is indistinguishable from the product of a big publishing house,” he says. “Nevertheless, it still takes effort and expense. So, I think that even today people assume that print content has had to cross some kind of curation threshold.”

For all these reasons, Dooley, like others, thinks the printed word is here to stay.

“Many thought the convenience and cost advantage of digital media would make print content as obsolete as horse-drawn carriages. It’s clear that people still enjoy paper-based content.”

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