I’ve been a physical book nerd from the start. Ever since I was young, I’ve always wanted a library of books to own so that I can show them off, grab a book, give it a sniff, and put it back. But with the rise of e-books as an extremely viable model of reading, it’s created a debate amongst readers and publishers as to whether e-books are the “Death of the book” or are just another method of reading which won’t impact one’s reading of physical books.

I’ve been following the debate from day one, and I understand both sides’ arguments. Digital books have little physical cost, and the same information (and, in some cases, possibly more). However, you use the long-term value of the physical book, that beauty which comes from having books on a shelf for others to look at, to feel and to sell and re-sell.

But these are all subjective answers. One person may just want a cheap book while another wants the physical book, regardless of cost.

But what if there was actually something more to this conversation? In my arguing with many on both sides, I’ve found a few arguments towards the physical which basically claim that if one wants to engage and remember a text better—such as in the case of non-fiction educational material or classical material—a physical book increases the chances of this happening to statistically notable levels.

Sadly, I haven’t found any actual studies which show this shift directly. Some studies have shown that reading on the Kindle is slower than reading in a book.

Now, these ideas were prevalent in the early ’80s and ’90s, when there was a clear exploration of the physical/digital realm in order to make sure everything was accurate. Plus, we were still trying to understand the difference between a screen and a page, and how that affects our eyes and minds. More recent studies have complicated this early idea, making it appear as if there might not be a difference, especially with the reader-friendly screens of Amazon’s Kindle.

So, what’s the verdict? That’s tricky, but I found a psychologist who explained the comparison and contrasts in a fairly effective manner. According to this Time Healthland article, psychologist Kate Garland found that there were a few contrasts between those who read e-books and those who read physical books:

First, more repetition was required with computer reading to impart the same information.

Second, the book readers seemed to digest the material more fully. Garland explains that when you recall something, you either “know” it and it just “comes to you” — without necessarily consciously recalling the context in which you learned it — or you “remember” it by cuing yourself about that context and then arriving at the answer. “Knowing” is better because you can recall the important facts faster and seemingly effortlessly.

“What we found was that people on paper started to ‘know’ the material more quickly over the passage of time,” says Garland. “It took longer and [required] more repeated testing to get into that knowing state [with the computer reading, but] eventually the people who did it on the computer caught up with the people who [were reading] on paper.”

Context and landmarks may actually be important to going from “remembering” to “knowing.” The more associations a particular memory can trigger, the more easily it tends to be recalled. Consequently, seemingly irrelevant factors like remembering whether you read something at the top or the bottom of page — or whether it was on the right or left hand side of a two-page spread or near a graphic — can help cement material in mind.

These simple psychological triggers have turned out to be essential to our reading, and really affect how we comprehend certain texts. It shows that when one wants to read a text in a meaningful matter, there are benefits to choosing a physical text over a digital one.

As Christians and thinkers, we need to consider the format of our reading in context with our desired result for that reading. So, when I want to read A Dance of Dragons, I’m open to choosing the Kindle option. But when I want to dig deep into Lewis or Keller, I’ll pick up a physical book.


  1. “Context and landmarks may actually be important to going from ‘remembering’ to ‘knowing.’ The more associations a particular memory can trigger, the more easily it tends to be recalled.”

    Isn’t this more a reference to remembering than knowing? After all, association triggers are distinctly cuing mechanisms. Isn’t she making an argument then that book readers (in opposition to screen readers) are better at remembering their reading, plausibly because there are more cues to trigger memory—and then not at all treating the Knowing aspect.

  2. While you’re right in some regards, the original article was using those terms to mean very specific things. But the point was made, that physical books do provide different stimuli for how we understand material then a digital book.

  3. Right now, I’ve got thousands of books on the iPad on which I’m typing this post. In particular, I’ve got an entire theological library that cost me a lot of money, but would have cost even more in paper form–and it would be far easier to destroy than books I can re-download at no cost if my iPad got destroyed. Furthermore, I can search these books a lot easier, make links and cross-reference. I no longer have to painstakingly copy my handwritten notes from one paper Bible to another. In short, there is little downside to making my theological and biblical studies electronic, save one: aesthetics. And that is deeper than just something pretty.

    I remember the episode “Court Martial” of Star Trek. Way back in the 60’s they knew that one day computers would challenge printed books:

    (Kirk is about to pour himself a drink.)
    COGLEY: You Kirk?
    KIRK: Yes. (Notices the piles of books everywhere) What is all this?
    COGLEY: I figure we’ll be spending some time together, so I moved in.
    KIRK: I hope I’m not crowding you.
    COGLEY: What’s the matter? Don’t you like books?
    KIRK: Oh, I like them fine, but a computer takes less space.
    COGLEY: A computer, huh? I got one of these in my office. Contains all the precedents. The synthesis of all the great legal decisions written throughout time. I never use it.
    KIRK: Why not?
    COGLEY: I’ve got my own system. Books, young man, books. Thousands of them. If time wasn’t so important, I’d show you something. My library. Thousands of books.
    KIRK: And what would be the point?
    COGLEY: This is where the law is. Not in that homogenised, pasteurised, synthesiser. Do you want to know the law, the ancient concepts in their own language, Learn the intent of the men who wrote them, from Moses to the tribunal of Alpha 3? Books.
    KIRK: You have to be either an obsessive crackpot who’s escaped from his keeper or Samuel T. Cogley, attorney at law.
    COGLEY: Right on both counts. Need a lawyer?
    KIRK: I’m afraid so.

    My Mom–a bit of a Luddite who loved science fiction (it’s complicated) whole heartedly agreed with Cogley. And she was a marvelous calligrapher, who probably would have been a Mideval Monk in another life.

    I guess I feel the same way, as much as I love my iPad…a nice Cambridge or Allen Bible makes it seem so shabby.

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