Paper vs Electronic – The Great Debate Continues

Are you an electro reader or a paper purist? Do you care about the method you use to ingest words? I am an unashamed, die-hard paper fan. I have only finished one book on my Kindle (a novel I promised to review for a friend). I have read thousands of books on paper, failing to finish only the ones that were complete garbage. In the nineties, wild enthusiasm for screen reading promised the printed word would be dead by now. It persists. So where are we at with the whole debate?

Print versus Screen

Reading the Future

Scientific American recently published a wonderfully well-written piece on screen versus print reading. Their findings suggest that both physically and psychologically there are significant differences between on-screen and print reading. One of the most fascinating points is that humans orient themselves by the physicality of a book – the eight corners, two pages and centreline. This orientation in the physical affects both memory and comprehension. Reading onscreen cannot provide that kind of orientation, although some companies are researching the possibilities, which strikes me as slightly mad since we’ve already invented it – the printed book!

If you’re into the science, the article I mention above is brilliantly written and well-researched. What it doesn’t consider is the environmental impacts of screen versus paper.

Earth Impact

In a nutshell, electronic reading devices are not the environmental saviour touted by some. All of them require rare earth elements for their production, notoriously difficult substances to mine from the earth’s crust with multiple environmental impacts. Technology is constantly advancing, making many electronic devices obsolete almost before they’ve been taken up. How often do you upgrade your phone, your reading tablet, your computer? How much landfill is electronic products created at great cost to the environment?

In contrast, paper books can be both produced and trashed sustainably. Well-managed commercial forests provide great carbon sinks, as well as all the other benefits that trees offer (shade, increased rainfall, oxygenation, pollution mitigation, habitat etc). Naturally I’m not talking about crappy paper practices that use clear-felling as a harvesting method. Agroforestry has become smarter and more sustainable.

Reality versus Fiction

I’m not just into the science. I have an esoteric, intangible, intuitive, entirely unscientific opinion about this topic. It is marvellously curious to me that the words we read on-screen are a complete fiction. They are a series of integers stored on a microchip, a non-reality, a nothing, a wraith.

The inked word, by contrast, is tangible, a reality stamped onto the page. It is a true word (gravitas). I am sure our brains know this, taking the printed word more seriously than the one that exists only for moments, generated and then deceased, disappeared.

Consciousness is aware that someone in this physical reality has gone to the trouble of not only writing the words, but finding something to print them on, acquiring the ink and then bringing them to life in the physical world. I believe this makes a difference to the way we absorb the information, but then perhaps I am one of those tedious 20th Century Luddites who hangs onto the old ways with gritted teeth …

Our Cyber Children

It has been suggested that children today will be complete converts to electronics, dissing paper in favour of what they’ve known all their lives. I disagree. My kids (all four of them), love paper books, despite the fact that the older ones spend a considerable amount of time using electronic devices. I observe my eldest son with great interest. He uses electronics to communicate with his mates, check out photos and share information. When he wants to read, his preference is to curl up in his bed with a paper book. He’s used my Kindle, but reports the experience as unsatisfying.

My three year old is perfectly able to use the apps on my i-phone, but he loves to look at printed books. I notice all my children turning pages with satisfaction. There’s some sense of achievement in the numbers game that reading can become (consuming all those pages).

What’s Your Preference?

So much of our communications are via the written word. Does the way that we read matter? I have presented a few angles on this debate, but I want to know how you read. Do you notice a difference between screen and paper? Do you care? What’s your take on this topic?

4 Comments
  1. I’m with you Pollyanna, I have to sit up the back of the
    House to read on my computer which is a bit antisocial.
    I only visit my computer once a day if I ‘m lucky.
    Reading a book I can take it anywhere. I love to leave bookmarks everywhere, so I can come back to re-read something if it strikes me as important.
    Being visual person, and a tactile type of person, I love the pictures maps and texture of a paper book.
    But then I am of the old school.
    Everyone will have a different experience. I haven’t
    Finished the Last Shaman yet which I ordered as an e-book.

    • Ha ha, yes the book I was referring to was The Last Shaman and I made a huge effort to finish reading it onscreen, even though I think it’s a wonderful book! x

  2. Oh books definitely, for their earthiness…their smell, their tangibility…and the computer makes me go batty. and the two books of the moment for me are, SoulCraft by Bill Plotkin…which I am reading in preparation for my vision quest, and Minding Ourselves, Mending the Earth (or some mix of that)in preparation of life on earth and the stories we should be telling ourselves. Blessings Sarah

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