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Paper versus Screen Reading

Superficially, today's post doesn't appear to be age-related unless you consider this: that young people, those born – oh, let's say since 1990 or so, are probably more comfortable reading on a screen than you and I.

And, I can't prove this but it could be that they have a different relationship with books and with reading than I do. Maybe they don't have the same reverence for physical books that I grew up with and is still important to me. There is something about leafing through a new book while anticipating some good entertainment or what I might learn that just isn't the same with a book on a screen.

Even so, when Amazon released its first Kindle e-reader in late 2007, I was an enthusiastic early adopter.

Although I regularly used such online services as Project Gutenberg to download electronic version of out-of-copyright books, with them I had been stuck reading on the computer. Kindle allowed me to easily read in bed, lounging on the sofa or anywhere I wanted to be - just like a "real" book.

Further, buying electronic books – less expensive, by the way, than the dead tree variety – allowed me to believe I was helping to save forests and by extension, the planet. I'll get back to that in a moment.

When it was released, I upgraded to the Kindle Fire, a tablet computer combined with e-reader but quickly gave it up; it weighs so much that I feel like I'm trying to hold up half the Encyclopedia Britannica.

It is approaching a decade now that I have been buying and reading e-books but that has been falling off in the past couple of years, probably longer. Mostly these days, the e-books I buy are light entertainment, detective novels for example, and a few others that don't require serious thought.

Not that I stopped buying paper books altogether but I learned to make a distinction that I adhere to more completely now. If it's politics, history, ageing, biography, literary fiction, etc., I purchase hard copies or borrow them from the library. The reasons are almost all about personal convenience. Here are some of them:

I like knowing the size of a book. I have a sense of my time commitment when I see that it is two inches thick. Six hundred electronic pages doesn't mean much to me especially when a larger font will increase the count to 800 pages and smaller one reduce it to 400.

If I want to check something earlier in a book, I usually have a sense, with paper, of how far back it is or which chapter it is in and whether it's on the left or right page. That's not possible on a screen.

Also, I can't use a finger or two to hold my places in an electronic book while I check a fact or thought or idea elsewhere among the pages.

A book, as long as it's not too thick, rests comfortably in the hand. The thin Kindle, in its way, is as hard to hold as the Fire and my hand begins to ache after 15 or 20 minutes.

I mark up and highlight books I own as I read. Yes, I know there is a highlight function in e-readers, but it is not anywhere near as convenient to use nor as satisfying as wielding that wide, yellow Sharpie.

And when I'm done, I like placing a book I've finished among its kind on the shelf. When I pull one off a month later or even a year, I have a sense, skimming through the pages, of what markings I want to read again.

Other times, especially when many years have passed, I'm surprised at what is highlighted, what I thought was important then compared to now. It's a way, sometimes, of measuring how my thinking has changed over time.

I like having my books around me. I like going through them. Just a couple of weeks ago, I pulled the entire library of several hundred books about ageing out of their shelves to dust and reorder the mess I'd made of their organization over the past several years.

It was satisfying (and useful) beyond the tidiness factor. As I touched each one, I was reminded of what I like about it (or not), what I learned, what I might want to re-read. My books are my friends.

As I have returned to reading more paper books than electronic; and despite so many email signatures admonishing me not to print this message; and even with the exorbitant price of ink, I have also been printing more online information to read on paper. It's just easier, especially if it is longer than few paragraphs. Most of the book reasons above apply too and I'm not sure but I think my eyes don't tire as quickly.

While I was considering all this recently, I ran across a LinkedIn post from Jeneane Sessum, a smart women I used to kind of know online and have not been in touch with for a long time. It's titled, Let There be Print, and she has had some similar feelings:

”I have experienced a renewed urge in the last week to print things out, literally. Pretty much anything. Health information, college ideas for our daughter, pictures form old year books accessible online, and photos of our aging boxer Bando,” she writes.

Jeneane also clarifies the environmental questions about paper and printing for me:

”...this transition from physical to digital exhaust has certainly not solved the planet's sustainability challenges. The energy demands of computing give rise to new problems that require further innovation.

“Simply put: We won't solve climate change simply by bypassing the print process. In contrary, continuing to build the physical world in ways that connect us to future generations is by definition good stewardship.”

While my reasons for returning to print – in books and online – are personal and related to my comfort, you can tell from that last phrase that Jeneane has larger, more universal and important concerns about losing both our private and our world heritage to future digital technology that will not be able to read the encoding of current storage media.

”Don't abandon what is of value to your family, your intellect, your heart or your soul to the digital domain,” she pleads. “That's where printing comes in. It's what we can do for now, for ourselves and our families, and maybe for future generations and civilizations...

“We have a chance at a new beginning in this digital 'middle of things,' an opportunity to not let go of what we have created and will create, a chance to remain caretakers of what is of real value to this world, and a responsibility to preserve our humanity.”

She's right, you know. As elders, we who recall, probably more than the youngest generation can, the value – and pleasure - of hard copies should heed Jeneane's call to action.

Also, maybe even Amazon, inventor of the Kindle, has had an inkling that people are not letting paper books go anywhere. This week in Seattle the company opened its first retail book store:


You will find Jeneane Sessum's full story here and it is worth the read.


I couldn't agree more. Gotta have my books around me and I have not purchased a tech reader. I use my printer for health info, exercises, real how-to needs.

An upside to the trend to tech reading, at least for we who won't be here for the long haul, is that there are some great finds at antique stores and even Goodwill. I bought a leather-bound, full color copy of a National Geographic publication on Native American Tribes for (a mark-down from 2.99) 1.99 and a hardback copy of "Blue Highways" for 2.99. Can't beat that with a stick.

I agree with you 100% !!! I will add that if I am in bed reading a book on my iPad & I were to doze off (not that I would, of course), then when that iPad hits me on the nose, it really hurts! Also I have a difficult time with my fingers, as I am used to starting to turn the page when I am near the bottom of it, and with the iPad, many times it will turn before I am through reading, or I touch it with my left hand, and it starts going backward. Also, I sometimes want to finish the chapter before I get up to attend to something, and with a "real" book, I can easily see how much longer it will take, while it is not as easy with the electronic version.

Like you, I buy books that I will reread, or refer back to, and go to the library or online for books that are entertainment. I also print things, usually from different sources, because I can combine them in a folder or notebook, which I find easier to organize & refer back to when needed. I am sure part of this is that I am 70, and I was raised in a reading family, and am used to & comfortable with this method.

I think I have told you before, but will tell you again, how much I enjoy your blog & the intelligent comments that accompany it. Keep up the good work!

As usual you have read my mind. I find my (least expensive) Kindle useful for travel, and some lighter books I hope I'll enjoy but won't want to keep. I will add to the printing out subject that I still cannot do serious editing on a screen, and print out whole manuscripts if necessary. It is so much easier to find what you are looking for from an earlier part. (I think he used that phrase before, etc).

As always, many thanks for Time Goes By and my morning coffee!

Statements that recycling paper and switching from communications on paper to e-communication save paper are not correct. Readers can find facts about this at several places with a web search. Recycling paper, however, is a good thing environmentally because it reduces the need for landfill space.

Oops. Meant to say "save trees" at the start of line 3.

I also absolutely agree with all your reasons why reading an actual book is way more satisfying than using an ereader. I too stock my Kindle with very light reading matter, and I reserve it for taking along when I travel, so I don't have to pack multiple books.

I've never taken to electronic readers like the Kindle for precisely the same reasons you mentioned, Ronni. I use my husband's Kindle when we travel so that I don't have to carry heavy books in my luggage, but I only include light reading matter, almost never nonfiction.

With nonfiction, the business about highlighting is the deal breaker for me. I tried to highlight with the Kindle once and found it so laborious it wasn't worth the trouble. All my nonfiction books are underlined, and like you, when I go back to them, I look at the parts I've underlined.

Amazon has opened its first store within 10 minutes drive of my house, but I won't be buying anything there. I only buy from Amazon if I can't find something anywhere else. The company has driven so many good bookstores out of business that I will never forgive them for it. I make a point of buying my books at independents, even if it costs more.

This triggered a wave of sorrow for my beloved lifetime collection of maybe ten thousand books, mostly science fiction. When we downsized from a house to a two-bedroom condo, there was simply no room.

Ah well. Nothing lasts forever, I tell myself. Nothing in this world, not books, not people. In the end, what remains is that my library did exist, it was loved, and there are those besides me who were changed by it.

I try not to accumulate new owned books. We have a good library system in this city, which helps. But I find now that hard-cover books tend to be awkward and heavy to hold -- hard on my wrists -- and that's mostly what the library offers.

I had an ipad mini. (Still do, but it hasn't been charged for months.) What I mostly use for screen-based reading now is my phone, which is one of the larger-format ones. I find the 6plus screen is a good compromise between 'big enough to be easily readable' and 'light enough to hold for an extended time without getting tired." It's also very, very portable.

What I've been doing with it is rediscovering sensationalist Victorian literature via Project Gutenberg. It's a window into the world of the first readers of those books. I like to think that I am, in a sense, reviving someone else's loved and lost library in a way they could never have foreseen. There's something highly satisfying about reading a new (to me) Wilkie Collins novel -- on a smartphone, in the subway!

When I was moving out of my university office--which essentially meant packing boxes and boxes of books to take home--I found myself constantly not only reliving what I had read [and in some cases written], but also realizing that my books are my memory, they are my life, they give me the sustenance I need. Given that my work is with books, books I read or write, books I teach, I feel that if they go, then so do I.

When I retired, my friends gave me a Kindle. With the best of intentions: they wanted to encourage me to travel more and enjoy the ease of carrying along whole books in such a small thing. .. Although I agree that the ease factor is worth noting, I must admit that I continue to carry books with me, including on the trip that I just completed to a conference in Leipzig and a wonderful week in the West Yorkshire moors.

I am sort of amused at Amazon's opening of the Seattle store -- but I am delighted that several independent bookstores with new and used books have opened in recent years in the Twin Cities. And somewhere recently I read that books are by no means disappearing from the scene. And then there was that great piece in the NY Times recently about the burgeoning of reading events for little kids in NY libraries.

I love the way you write about books, Ronni. And I love it too that the new book a colleague and I have finally completed and published is so lovely to look at that one of our contributors wrote us that touching it is like touching rose petals. Books can be sensuous too, you know, and I never tire of holding them.

I've used two Kindles, discarded them, and now prefer the old fashioned book. I really prefer soft bound whenever possible, but if the book comes to me from the library hard bound, I read it. I get most of my fiction from the local library which does a great job with having a full fiction collection with a fully functional request system. They don't do as great a job with non fiction though.

I don't have as much room for books as I used to. So I have to make a decision about which things I will buy. I just obtained an IPad mini, and I hope to use it as an alternate reader on trips.

I think that we have so many options now, and that isn't bad. I won't rule out electronic reading, but if it is a great non-fiction read, I think I want the hard copy.

One thing I have begun is a reading journal. I decided I wanted a record of what I was reading, and I wanted to do some hand writing. I don't seem to write much by hand any more. This has proved to be an interesting exercise. I log the title and write about two pages about the book. And I rate it. My plan is to have a reading journal for every year.

I weeded my many books down to a few autographed items, some reference books and manuals, and a few fiction titles by a favorite author. That's it.

I read between 12 to 18 books a month, and I check out all of them from the public library. Some are unabridged books on CD that I listen to when I am driving or doing mindless tasks at home. I read in bed before I turn the lights out, while I'm in the bathroom, and whenever I have a free moment. I have never "taken to" a Kindle or Nook although my husband has tried both. I don't want to spend money on titles, and even though I could get electronic copies from the library, holding a Kindle to read is just not the same.

I like the feel of a book in my hands, and I will read books that way until I am no longer able to hold them. I also will continue use the public library with only occasional purchases of a few nonfiction titles that I decide I absolutely need to own.

Also, Sarah? That's interesting. I'm the exact opposite. I can't do serious editing without a screen! I adapted... well, in stages, but at least by the mid-90s, when I was editing a computer newspaper. (Remember those? I think they've all pretty much died now.)

I agree that "... young people, those born – let's say since 1990 or so, are probably more comfortable reading on a screen than you and I. " But it seems that young people don't do a lot of reading at all these days which could be partly because of intense use of social media--such as Twitter--with its 140 character limit.

I do have a Kindle which is great for reading on an airplane or train. (Current book: Seattle Justice about an earlier era in the city with police involvement in shakedowns of those running brothels or gambling places.)

I do love browsing in bookstores though and expect to check out Amazon at University Village shortly.

We bring our tablets on trips, and download books from our library, but we don't bring tablets to the beach.

Instead, we, bring a couple used pocketbooks each on trips, when done reading, we go to the local libraries, donate our books, and buy a few more, usually for a dollar each.

Good way to recycle books, get to know some senior volunteers, and have a little chat about life, where the good restos are, all that stuff.

Many libraries collect and sell used books.

Also, we found some beach book kiosks where you can leave a book and take a book. Very cool idea.

I found at least three good books the kiosk way last year.

We love visiting libraries when we travel.

Especially ones that have big old easy chairs, tons of newspapers, magazines, friendly librarians and all the characters that walk in the door.

I have always been amazed at how some people do not enjoy reading.

A book I just took out of my local library.

"My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me."

(A black woman discovers her family's nazi past)

By Jennifer Teege

I was an ardent reader as a child and never outgrew my love of books -- not just reading but the actual physical books and other printed matter like magazines and newspapers. I was as fascinated by the actual manufacturing process as by the words conveyed. I ended up working in editing and publishing for 30 years and was hands-on for every step of the journey from paper manuscript to bound book or magazine. Toward the end of my career and for some years after, as computers came into play, I continued to print out those things that required careful reading or examination. I've learned to read and write on screens now, but it's not the same, and never will be for me.

I agree with almost everything but have a longer list of when I prefer e-reading.

One is in bed where it is much easier to keep light from shining on spouse. Another is that white print on black feels easier on my eyes.

A third is whilie traveling, both because it lightens the load and because I can download a new book from anywhere.

And last, hardbacks are too big and heavy so digital offers an alternative when books are newly published.

We are slimming down our collection of way too many books but have strong emotional bonds with so many that we can't bear to part with. It seems impossible to attach that way to e-books where you can't easily flip through as a reminder of what it is and how you felt when reading it.

I'm in 100% agreement. Although I read online, I'm also a lifelong reader of books and as long as I can hold a book upright, I will continue to be. I've used computers since the late 1980s when my tech obsessed spouse dragged me kicking and screaming into the 20th century. My computer became an essential work tool for the next 25 years, and basically that's how I regarded it--a tool for work, not for entertainment or pleasure. Although I'm no longer employed, I haven't made the transition completely.

While I agree that physical books and the paper they are printed on have consequences for the health of the planet, technology consumes HUGE amounts of electricity, which also has consequences. The written word has left a tangible, traceable history of civilization over thousands of years; it remains to be seen whether today's technology will do the same in a form that can be accessed 1,000 years form now.

My printer gets a lot of use, and less expensive ink cartridges are an ongoing item on my wish list.

I thought I would hate an e-reader but when my textbook in a science class was only in electronic format, I had to adapt.

What I do like about e-format is easy portability, the ability to bookmark and the ability to word search.

I've gone from books to ebooks back to books and now back to ebooks. I love shopping for used hardbacks, and have hundreds of them waiting to be read. However, I actually prefer audio books first, because they showcase good writing best. Then I prefer ebooks for general reading because my eyes love larger print. And then I like hardbacks because I can study them. However, when I'm book shopping, and I open a book and the print is small, I just put it back down. If the print is large enough, the book has a wonderful feel, and I think I'd like to own it forever, then I buy hardbacks.

I have several hundred of each - hardbacks, ebooks and audio books.

In order to peruse my e-reader while I'm eating, I prop it on one of those little stands you get at stationery stores to hold a steno pad or copy material. Makes it easier on the eyes and neck and it's less likely to get spilled upon. (Of course, I named my device, "Kendl.")

I am definitely a REAL book reader. I buy some but get most at the library. I belong to three libraries. My favorite is the one that has a free book area. Have taken home several
Michener books I never knew about. Same library has 4 for a $ paperbacks and $1 hardbacks.

When I finish the books, I give some to whomever I think might like them. I used to redonate the rest back to a library. Now I give them to a friend who can donate them for a tax deduction which I can't do.

I hope young people will learn to love real book reading too. There's hope. My 7 year old grandson recently asked me to buy him books from the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. I told him he could get them at the library. He said, But you have to give them back!
We went right out to the store and bought two of the books.

Even dyed-in-the-wool print book addicts will have to admit that having instant availability to just about every book ever written is a big plus for eBooks. Many of us with mobility or transportation problems who find it difficult to get to bookstores and libraries, now have a greater access to books (and magazines) that we never had before.

I find the digital world very kind to writing and editing, but I feel nothing but sadness when I think of all of the books I have sacrificed to moving and reorganizing. I also worry that all of the work I put into writing online may someday disappear into the blogosphere if my computer ever has a meltdown.

As for me, I would love to read magazines, the local paper and paper books. As it is, I am so very, very grateful for electronic print media which alolows me to adjust the font to a size I can see. Macular degeneration has attacked my eyesight but having e-reading capability on an iPad and a large screen phone allows the extension of my reading life. When that's over, there are audio books and print-to-voice waiting. So, hurrah for the electronics, I say. I wish they had been there for my Mother.

Ronni, the font you are using for TGB is easy for me to read with the magnifying feature in Windows. Thanks for using high contrast and a robust font. Too many websites feature grey letters on white, or worse, colored letters on another colored background.

I was taught at school to NEVER and I mean never write or highlight books so I am shocked Ronni lol! Even though I may have bought and paid for a book, I still cannot do it . . . I used to sell used books on Ebay and I would be very annoyed if I bought a second-hand book that had been highlighted and scribbled in. People should either keep them or throw them away and not let them escape into the thrift stores!

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