Media Magazine

Print Versus Screen and the Physicality of Paper

Posted on the 18 April 2013 by Themarioblog @garciainteract

TAKEAWAY: It is a conversation that should never be missing from media conferences, seminars, and college communication classes: how does reading on screens differ from reading on paper? A Scientific American article summarizes the issue and supports it with splendid research on this new topic. Read about it here as I touch upon the main themes of the piece. Part Three: The physicality of text on paper: memory plays a role in locating a certain text, but is that possible on a screen?

Today we continue our conversation, started in this blog Tuesday, and inspired by a Scientific American article about the differences we experience reading on paper as opposed to on a screen surface.

One of the most fascinating elements of the SA piece deals with what the author refers to as the physicality of text—our ability to remember a certain passage we have read by also remembering the spot on the page where it was located. 

Here is an excerpt:

The human brain may also perceive a text in its entirety as a kind of physical landscape. When we read, we construct a mental representation of the text in which meaning is anchored to structure. The exact nature of such representations remains unclear, but they are likely similar to the mental maps we create of terrain—such as mountains and trails—and of man-made physical spaces, such as apartments and offices. Both anecdotally and in published studies, people report that when trying to locate a particular piece of written information they often remember where in the text it appeared. We might recall that we passed the red farmhouse near the start of the trail before we started climbing uphill through the forest; in a similar way, we remember that we read about Mr. Darcy rebuffing Elizabeth Bennett on the bottom of the left-hand page in one of the earlier chapters.

The printed page’s defined parameters

In most cases, paper books have more obvious topography than onscreen text. An open paperback presents a reader with two clearly defined domains—the left and right pages—and a total of eight corners with which to orient oneself. A reader can focus on a single page of a paper book without losing sight of the whole text: one can see where the book begins and ends and where one page is in relation to those borders. One can even feel the thickness of the pages read in one hand and pages to be read in the other. Turning the pages of a paper book is like leaving one footprint after another on the trail—there’s a rhythm to it and a visible record of how far one has traveled. All these features not only make text in a paper book easily navigable, they also make it easier to form a coherent mental map of the text.

The SA piece reports that, in contrast to paper, most screens, e-readers, smartphones and tablets interfere with intuitive navigation of a text and inhibit people from mapping the journey in their minds. A reader of digital text might scroll through a seamless stream of words, tap forward one page at a time or use the search function to immediately locate a particular phrase—but it is difficult to see any one passage in the context of the entire text.

But does that make any difference to what digital natives and the more digital natives coming behind them think or will prefer? It is, in fact, as when we know that spinach and green vegetables are good for our health, but we don’t necessarily rush to stock up on spinach and brussels sprouts.

What is good for us is not necessarily what we line up to be the first to get, even when Dr. Phil recommends it to his millions of fans on TV.

The map of our minds

A man of my age has read more texts and books in print than on screens. I am fond of all the books in my personal library, many of which are heavily underlined, marked, a page corner turned, a book marker forever indicating a certain spot.  From time to time, as I linger at home, I may stop and pick up one of my books and instinctively turn to a page that is marked: what was it that interested me here years ago?  Or, I may do a second reading of a paragraph I have underlined with yellow.  In that sense, there is a physicality, a contact with paper that is undeniable, and which I have yet to experience with books I have read in my iPad, where I have about 17 downloaded books.

I have underlined text in my digital books as well, but I would have to be specifically looking for that information for me to open the book again and re-read what I marked, while the mere pleasure of touring the offerings of my physical, oak bookshelf at home and stopping serendipitously to browse through previous pages of interest is just not as readily available or enjoyable in my digital bookshelf.

The SA article makes it clear that e-readers do find some elements of the print experience in digital books:

Although e-readers like the Kindle and tablets like the iPad re-create pagination—sometimes complete with page numbers, headers and illustrations—the screen only displays a single virtual page: it is there and then it is gone. Instead of hiking the trail yourself, the trees, rocks and moss move past you in flashes with no trace of what came before and no way to see what lies ahead.

Give and take

I imagine that we could debate the reading in print versus screen issue for a long time, and not reach satisfactory conclusions for either side.

There should not be such a debate. Instead, we should celebrate the fact that we can access information in such a variety of platforms. That, to me, is the important topic of conversation to have in newsrooms and publishing houses.

A digital book may never recreate the tactile experience we derive from a printed one.  It goes beyond areas of concentration, visual dynamics and the physicality of locating text.

To me the printed book itself carries with it the memories that range from when we bought it and where, to when we read it.

Case in point: as I prepared this blog post, I was reading about a new book, written by Plinio Apulenio Mendoza, a man I met at El Tiempo of Colombia many years ago, who is a close friend of Nobel-laureate author Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  In his new book, Gabo, cartas y recuerdos (Gabo, letters and remembrances),  Mendoza includes letters never published before from Garcia Marquez to him during the time Garcia Marquez was writing his 1966 masterpiece.  Immediately I was transported to my own edition of Cien Años de Soledad, which still sits on my bookshelf at home. While I, of course, remember the breathtaking narrative style of Garcia Marquez (read it in Spanish if you can!) and the magical realism of its content, I also have vivid memories of the physical book itself, and the time of my life when I carried it around for weeks during a graduate course at the University of Miami, circa 1970.

In fact, I have decided that as soon as I get home this week, I will pull Cien Años de Soledad from the bookshelf, touch it again, deal with the physicality of it, and re-read it.  In a way, I am glad I have all 800 of those printed pages of it to enjoy and to reminisce. I will also revisit notes I know I wrote on the edge of the pages.

In this sense, I do agree with the Scientific American article that print offers something extra, but that does not mean that I will not enjoy a variety of other books for which a digital edition can provide enhancements to tell the story better.

The magical realism of Garcia Marquez already comes enhanced via the words.  Other topics and authors may not be so lucky.

Let us enjoy a world where we have the choice to select how we wish to read, print or screen, as opposed to print versus screen.


Previous blog posts on this topic:

Paper versus screen: Fatigue is about graphic noise in the design process, not the platform itself

A conversation about differences of reading on screen versus paper

Of related interest:

Five tips for Effective Web Writing

First paragraph:

Writing for the web requires some techniques and a special workflow that are not common in traditional print writing. Here are some tips that can optimize print materials for on-screen reading.

Post-artifact books & publishing: Digital’s effect on how we produce, distribute and consume content

iPad: Scroll or card?

TheMarioBlog post 1241

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