e-books take longer to read than print

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Christopher Timothy Dean's picture
Joined: 22 Oct 2006 - 10:49pm
e-books take longer to read than print
Nick Curtis's picture
Joined: 21 Apr 2005 - 8:16am

From today's Washington Post...

What's behind the human touch
By Kathleen Parker
Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Sometimes it takes a scientific study to reveal the obvious. The latest discovery -- that touch influences how we perceive things -- is something like the warning on a steaming cup of coffee.

Just as everyone knows that spilling hot liquid on one's lap will produce a burning sensation, everyone knows that tactile sensations convey information about the object or person being touched. The question is: How do we interpret this information? And what actions might we take in response?

Joshua M. Ackerman at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology sought to answer those questions through a series of psychological experiments. He concluded that an object's texture, hardness and weight influence our judgments and decisions.

Again, the obvious: Weight conveys importance ("weighty issues") and hardness is associated with rigidity. At last we understand the church pew.

Despite the foregoneness of these findings, the implications are significant. How we literally feel things can influence everything from our choices when voting to spending money and interacting with others.

In one experiment, for example, Ackerman gave 54 volunteers clipboards with a job applicant's résumé attached. Those holding the heavier clipboards rated the candidate more highly, deducing that the applicant was more serious.

In another experiment, volunteers were asked to complete a puzzle with pieces that were either smooth or sandpaper rough, after which they read a transcript of a social encounter. Guess who interpreted the interaction as more adversarial? This rough interpretation also affected subsequent decision making, with the sandpaper group more inclined toward tough negotiation.

Apparently, we don't have to touch things only with our hands to get a feel for something. Our posteriors are equally receptive to hard-soft messaging. Hence the chair experiment, in which subjects were asked to make offers on a car. The dealer would refuse the first offer and a second offer immediately followed. Those sitting on hard chairs made lower second offers than those sitting on softer chairs.

We might extrapolate to our hearts' content, but it seems wise that those wishing to preserve their virtue in the dating world might avoid the down cushion. And why not make those United Nations chairs a little comfier? Might we begin exporting Barcaloungers to the Middle East?

Such musings led my meandering mind to the subject of books and other dead-tree reading products in the digital age. I belong to that subgroup of individuals who smell a book before reading. (If you are not a book-smeller, we have nothing further to discuss.)

The tactile experience of reading is also crucial to my reading pleasure. Holding a book compares to nothing short of a baby's contact with his favorite blankie. Consistent with Ackerman's findings, a hardback is superior to a paperback precisely because it is more solid, weightier and, therefore, more permanent, more important, better.

But might touching words on a printed page vs. reading them online also be relevant to one's comprehension and judgment? Are words consigned to tangible and tactually rewarding paper more likely to register in our minds than those that float on hard tablets subject to the blinkering life span of a battery or extinguishable by a bolt of lightning?

Admit it: You print out the stories you really want to study. Think, too, how differently we consider a handwritten letter vs. an e-mail. Even an e-mail printed out seems more important -- more concrete -- than what we view on the screen. It is, alas, more human.

Part of the pleasure of a real, snail-mail letter isn't only the effort involved in putting words to parchment but also the fact of the letter writer having touched the same piece of paper. The exchange isn't only an act of communication but one of intimacy.

We are all part of this immense digital experiment and we know not where it leads. But the tactile vacuum inherent in the medium can't be insignificant. Offhand, it seems that our technologically enhanced communications, though miraculous in speed and access, have become harder and rougher with the medium.

Reaching out and touching someone has become easier than ever, but we never really make contact. Hunkered over our keyboards, tapping and clicking messages to the vast Other, we have become a universe of lone rangers keeping the company of our own certitude.

Perhaps what the world needs now is a kinder, softer desk chair.

Simon Daniels's picture
Joined: 11 Apr 2002 - 6:37pm
Theunis de Jong's picture
Joined: 22 Apr 2008 - 5:06pm

I'm a book smeller, and also flick through books in the book store -- not particularly to read. If the paper is rough, I'm noticeably less inclined to buy it. A good solid weight, on the other hand, with a firmly bound back and not too flimsy cover paper, are points in favor.

I love the smell of ink in new books. Occasionally I can declare a book a laserprint without even looking -- I hate the acrid "electronic" tang of these.

What does the Kindle smell like? The iPad? And now 3D television has arrived, when are we readers going to get smell-o-read?

Nick Shinn's picture
Joined: 8 Jul 2003 - 11:00am

I wouldn't bet against e-books in the long run.
Typophiles were resolutely against DTP when it started.
I suspect that the e-reading experience will flesh out, and other qualities will emerge to make it rich and fulfilling.
Nonetheless, there's nothing I'd rather do than read an old book set in letterpress, with engraved or spot colour illustrations, or gravure photos.

I recently acquired a copy of the Thomas Bewick autobiography. This version reverts to the original manuscript in reproducing his abbreviations with superior characters nicely typeset. However, I was disappointed they didn't go the whole hog and set authentic long "s"s! Now that's something an interactive e-book could offer as an option -- after all "hist" is an OpenType feature, I put it in all my new fonts (although it is not currently supported by any applications, AFAIK).

Brian Jongseong Park's picture
Joined: 15 Mar 2006 - 12:53pm

Am I the only one who read the title as "e-books take longer to read than to print"?

David Berlow's picture
Joined: 19 Jul 2004 - 6:31pm

>Am I the only one who read the title as "e-books take longer to read than to print"?

Same here :) and then I thought, "well you've got to read it after you print it, so what's the issue?"

>Participants also complained about the weight of the iPad...

The iPad is too heavy for some people? ...and despite the headline:

>...the only fair conclusion is that we can't say for sure which device offers the fastest reading speed.

... but we'll publish a flashy-sounding result anyway. I spit on this study.


Adam Shubinsky's picture
Joined: 13 Jul 2009 - 7:48am

I wouldn't be too quick to draw any conclusion from a single within-subjects study based on 24 participants, with a high degree of individual variability.

In addition it would be nice the know something about the book used; how it was typeset, the paper tone, the quality of the print, etc. Those variables are somewhat fixed for the Kindle and for the iPad, but they vary widely from book to book, and are sure to have an influence upon readability and therefore reading speeds.