The Problem with Digital Reading is Paper – LiquidText

The Problem with Digital Reading is Paper – LiquidText

A lot of people over thirty-five tend to think they prefer paper books/documents because they’re old. They may see digital as being better in some abstract way and, with a tone somewhere between apology and lament, see themselves as too old to get on board. The beauty of Rosenwald’s piece is that it helps us all get a little closer to the root of the problem with digital reading. The signs are that it’s less of an incompatibility with our childhood habits, as with our psychological and cognitive requirements as people.

Kindle is really designed for casual reading; the place where digital has fallen short, as Rosenwald explains, is with things like digital textbooks. And while Rosenwald focuses on academic reading, other studies have shown similar preferences among professional knowledge workers, about 80% of whom like to print their documents to read them. This kind of professional and academic reading usually involves what academics call “active reading” since it necessitates a more proactive engagement with a text, and especially the physical medium of a text. Taking notes, comparisons, writing excerpts, searching, are all examples.

So why is active reading so hard on digital devices? Partly it’s the nature of a digital device that invites distraction and, on tablets and PCs, the irritating lighting of an emissive display. But a major component is more about what the devices are capable of and how that matches to what people need when they read. Back in the 90s Kenton O’Hara studied what goes into the active reading process at Xerox’s research labs in the UK. He found many of the usual suspects: annotation like highlighting and margin notes, bookmarking, etc. But he found nuances that are less obvious—having good ways to retrieve notes, support for non-linear reading, viewing different document sections in parallel, diagramming, etc.

Think about it—many of the best attributes of paper require it being composed of physical pages. So we’re left in a difficult spot: our digital active reading products are inspired by paper, inherit its problems, and avoid its advantages.

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