Do readers absorb less from a Kindle than from paper?

From Alison Flood at The Guardian:

A new study which found that readers using a Kindle were “significantly” worse than paperback readers at recalling when events occurred in a mystery story is part of major new Europe-wide research looking at the impact of digitisation on the reading experience.

The study, presented in Italy at a conference last month and set to be published as a paper, gave 50 readers the same short story by Elizabeth George to read. Half read the 28-page story on a Kindle, and half in a paperback, with readers then tested on aspects of the story including objects, characters and settings.

Anne Mangen of Norway’s Stavanger University, a lead researcher on the study, thought academics might “find differences in the immersion facilitated by the device, in emotional responses” to the story. Her predictions were based on an earlier study comparing reading an upsetting short story on paper and on iPad. “In this study, we found that paper readers did report higher on measures having to do with empathy and transportation and immersion, and narrative coherence, than iPad readers,” said Mangen.

But instead, the performance was largely similar, except when it came to the timing of events in the story. “The Kindle readers performed significantly worse on the plot reconstruction measure, ie, when they were asked to place 14 events in the correct order.”

The researchers suggest that “the haptic and tactile feedback of a Kindle does not provide the same support for mental reconstruction of a story as a print pocket book does”.

That is speculative, but consistent with my own intuition, and my own tendency to (sometimes) organize information by remembering physically where it was in the book.


I don't have a kindle. I use the app but it failed to force me into divorce with paper. I still buy more hard copy than digital version because, strangely, I find paper books are easier and more comfortable to read...

Apps on a tablet or cellphone can't holde a candle to a real Kindle at all. It's much more comfortable and easier on the eyes, and reads ten times faster.

The result is intuitive but it suggests an easy fix: a prominent visual indicator that shows in analog fashion how far along you are in the book. One obvious solution is to take a bit of the left and right margins and show "pages" finished and remaining. When you start to read there is about a cm of dense lines to your right, when you are halfway through there is 1/2 cm at each side, when you're done it's all at the left. Or shade the page itself: when you start the page is uniform, when you are halfway through the page is half shaded etc. Etc.

I think a visual indicator would not work, what is needed is something tactile. It is interesting that the problem in sequencing events though, I guess I am very linear but I have a hard time understanding this problem, though I know many people who are very smart who have it. I do notice when reading on my kindle I am far more likely to skim, I really don't know why.

I would really like this feature, even if it were just a progress bar that popped up at the top of the page for 3-4 seconds after flipping the page.

Roy might be right about the tactile requirement though.

One of the other issues is that I real a lot of non-fiction on my kindle, and the book tends to end somewhere around 60-80% through the total pages.

My kindle has a progress bar at the bottom, and a series of dots showing progress on the selection pages) is that something they've removed from later editions?

I'm wondering whether Tyler is referring to remembering how far along in pages a quote is versus where on its two-page layout it is. I suspect he does both.

You can read a Kindle book with popular sentences highlighted (and the number of people who did it). This could increase retention of those passages, for good or ill.

But, Captain, ye canna scribble on a Kindle.

I really like the clippings feature on my Kindle. I can flip through it and just read the stuff I highlighted rather than flipping through the whole book to find the piece I wanted to remember.

That's pleasure reading. What about when the job means lots of reading? Crtl+F, PDFs, PDFs with internal links and a couple flat screens are much better than paper. For vacation, I'd still for the paper book.

I'll quote Douglas Adams ( :

1) everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal;

2) anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it;

3) anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilization as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.

The Kindle was invented well before I turned thirty; I bought one excitedly and have been incredibly disappointed. It's currently gathering dust.

Just because a saying is clever doesn't mean it's true.

And just because an observation is boring and shallow doesn't mean it's not right

From the original article "The Elizabeth George study included only two experienced Kindle users."

That seems to be a big red flag for this study. The novelty of reading on a Kindle may have been sufficiently distracting to the participants that it lessened their focus on the mystery story they were reading.

Still, I've been using Kindle apps for years, and I find there's something less immersive about the experience. Maybe it's tactile. Maybe part of my brain thinks it's in front of a computer, so it goes into multitasking mode. Or maybe my aging mind just wanders more easily than it used to.

I use kindle because I can adjust the font for my nearly old eyes. I have a kindle but I use my ipad. I've read that sales of e-books has leveled off, one explanation being that more readers are using their ipads rather than their kindles, the former with numerous distractions like email, i-messages, the internet, etc. It's these distractions that I would assume make readers less focused and their recall less accurate. But Cowen's explanation makes more sense. I'm visual (a male, of course), so I can find my way by looking briefly at a map but can't follow oral directions. Remembering a story according to where it is physically located in a book makes perfect sense. For me, anyway. but I'm male.

Luis Pedro Coelho makes a very important point. If i test it with my grandmother as the target user, it is quite likely that paper will kill kindle or any other device. But, it is interesting that kindle and the other devices are less easy to accommodate when it comes to go back a lot of pages quickly, like jumping 200 pages in order to remember something in the plot, and therefore you might just forgo and continue reading. Plus, when it comes to Ipad or other more sophisticated devices, probably the fact that they can do many more things that just reading a book makes reading more subject to 'procrastination' and distraction.

Yes, that's one of the reasons I rarely use my kindle. I jump around while reading a lot, both backward and forward, looking for a variety of things for a variety of reasons. The kindle allows some jumping around, but not as flexibly nor nearly as quickly as a paper book does.

This is part of the reason why my kindle is rarely used for non-fiction.

I would care more about this if I wasn't reading it on my smartphone.
Ha! The biggest benefit of a kindle for me is you can own hundreds of books in the same space as a paperback. When I travel I take my whole library.

The Guardian poorly reported the effects as measured in the original study to gather rage-views. The only big difference between Kindle readers and paperback readers were on remembering the proper sequence and timing of events.

I was surprised to read this, because I have been using a Kindle for years and I feel my reading comprehension has not suffered. Like Keith, I also like the fact that I can buy a book without adding clutter to my house. Is there a study which uses experienced Kindle readers?

The article is about reading comprehension of fiction.

I've been frustrated trying trying to read non-fiction on a Kindle, partly because the screen is small but mostly because the bookmarks don't work very well. Non-fiction books typically contain graphs, tables, maps, etc., usually in appendices and I frequently flip between these and the text.

Flipping between bookmarks in a paper book is quick and easy, but on a Kindle it requires selecting "bookmarks" from a menu, then selecting the bookmark you want, and then waiting for the page to refresh: this seems to break concentration in a way that paper-flipping does not, but mostly it's annoying because it just takes too long.

Although when doing research the ability to do string searches on electronic text is invaluable.

I got a Kindle as a college graduation gift back in 2010; during the two years between then and when I started law school, I averaged roughly one book every other week. After I started law school, my pleasure reading plunged dramatically, but I found that I was absorbing the information I was reading for school much, much more robustly, so this past summer I went back to physical books.

It hasn't helped--what I realized is that the difference between my e-reading and legal reading is not the medium, but the environment. Books I read on Kindle/iPad are for fun, and perhaps more importantly, I read them in times and places where I am more likely to be distracted from all the details (on the subway, so sitting around the house while my roommate watched baseball). Now that I am reading ordinary books in those sorts of environments again (though a little bit less so, because whipping out Piketty on the subway is a bit more of a pain than a Kindle), I am having similar retention problems; meanwhile, I can read a dozen cases on Westlaw sitting my office and easily retain all of the key details.

Until one of these studies controls for the types of reading and the environments in which people read when using a device vs. a physical book, color me skeptical.

This doesn't surprise me that much. I learned a lot of my Japanese by reading novels, sometimes looking up words I didn't know, and sometimes being able to guess at what words I knew in spoken Japanese were in the written form. To this day I can visualize where on the page and about how far through the book some of those words were the first time I encountered them. I've always thought that these associations helped my retention significantly.

Similar to the 3rd point Axa makes, we have all grown up using paper, even the younger generations still continue to use paper through most of their scholastic career. The Kindle and other eReaders are a very recent invention. I wonder if the results would be different 20 years from now when we as humans, have become used to reading ebooks.

I have seen a couple studies which compare retention using ereaders and paper. As a physician, I need to keep abreast of developments in my field. Most of the papers I read are available online, and find that the more I read using ebooks, or even internet based materials, the better I seem to be at retaining what I read, including the timing of events. Of course much of what I read are research papers with clearly defined time frames. However, it seems that when I read fiction, that skill appears to carry over and I find that I can recall the timing of events similar to when I read using paper. Maybe I'm different, which is why I submit myself as a "case study" but I also realize that I'm pretty similar to most people I meet.

Although I believe drokba, makes a good point about it being difficult to jump back to certain places, I think with more practice the difference in reading an ebook vs reading a paper book will diminish. I think the advantage I seem to have is that I'm used to noting the timing of events because of the type of reading that I do, and that skill carries over to reading fiction.

It's just in remembering when the sequence of scenes in THE BOOK took place. For most reading, that hardly even matters. If I'm reading for ideas, does it really matter whether I can remember whether idea #1 preceded idea #2 IN THE BOOK (not in real life)? Who cares.

It certainly matters for fiction, which was used in the linked article.

Even for fiction, does it really matter in most instances? Most literature is not about sequence, except potboilers perhaps, which are forgettable anyway. And, even supposing that sequence does matter, you should be able to determine sequence just based on circumstance (e.g., yes, he went and bought the gun before he went to kill him, etc.).

This is consistent with my experience. I tried reading serious books (with graphic or technical content) but that didn't work for me. I want to flip back and re-read a sentence or look again at a graph, and that's painfully difficult. (I believe it is possible to have links to such things, but that feature seems to be mostly absent from books I've seen. And how could they guess when I want to re-read a passage? I can't mark a passage to find later because I don't know at the time of reading whether or not I want to go back to it.) I don't think Kindle format is at all useful for something like a textbook, at least the way I use a textbook.

So I've mostly dedicated it to the light reading I do at night for relaxation. Fiction that isn't too complex. Works great for that. I can take off my glasses and make the font big enough to read in bed with the lights off. Best is when I re-read an old book I re-visit every few years (I have a set of authors I like to drop back in on from time to time) and then I can plow straight through. When you can do that, the ebook is fine.

I wonder if this difference will vanish for people who grow up reading on electronic devices. Surely the subjects of this study grew up reading printed books.

I have found that I am able to review documents more thoroughly in paper format. As an engineer, a large part of my work is generating and/or reviewing documents. The companies I have worked for tend to be on a paperless office mandate. After several painful lessons, I refuse to comply and print out everything I work on to proofread. Many of my colleagues, younger and older do the same thing. You just cannot catch as many errors through a digital medium as I can on paper. It may be a left brain thing, dunno.

I think the tactile aspect in a physical book, where you always know where you are could be very relevant in explaining the outcome. Are you just starting, half way through, or almost at the end of the book?

On a kindle, there is no tactile or physical feedback to pair with the words on the page.

I don't think a progress bar, which is still visual, will be highly effective.

Perhaps different types of memory tools will be needed for integration into education/pedagogy which may lead to better results w.r.t. the problems highlighted in the study.

"The study, presented in Italy at a conference last month and set to be published as a paper, gave 50 readers the same short story by Elizabeth George to read."

50 readers is an insufficient sample size to be drawing any kind of conclusion without multiple tests of replicability.

There goes 95% of social science.

We know without a doubt that the kindle absorbs much less from the reader.

I wonder how much of this has to do with the fact that people tend to learn to read with physical books rather than on Kindles etc. I did, and I resisted electronic reading for a long time. I finally gave it an honest try, and while I also tend not to remember things in quite the same way, I do like it. The single most valuable feature for me is to be able to very easily look up words with minimal interruption. If people learn to read this way, I wonder if it will represent an improvement. After all, who is to say which way is "correct"?

"(sometimes) organize information by remembering physically where it was in the book"

I used to be able to remember where a quote I was looking for appeared on a two page book layout, although that seems to be fading with age. Has anybody ever studied what % of readers can picture in their heads where something they were looking for was printed on the page?

Paper books are a mature technology; e-readers (and e-books) are not. Paper books are unlikely to change much, but e-readers have the potential to become far different and perhaps better than they are now.

Early automobiles were slow and not very reliable, and much of the infrastructure to support them did not yet exist: they were reasonably regarded as toys of the rich and not practical transportation. Today's e-readers (devices and apps) may not quite be there yet for many types of reading (and/or readers), but that doesn't mean they won't change and perhaps improve.

And just as a motorcar is not a horseless carriage but something entirely different, an e-book may evolve to become something very different from a paper book. At a minimum, an e-book need not remain fixed at publication as it can be easily and automatically updated. It need not be a static document.

An e-book has the potential to be far more than a static PDF-like document. Hypertext enables it to support multiple paths through the text: for example, a novel might have short and long versions, or versions with additional or different characters as well as different resolutions, thus better supporting multiple reads and interpretations than is possible with paper.

Because an e-reader runs on a digital processor and can play video, it might become far more interactive (but perhaps not as interactive as a video game?).

Today's e-books are mostly just like paper books that have been formatted for an electronic screen, but in time they may evolve to be something entirely different. And perhaps conventions and innovations will yet arise in e-readers and in the works themselves to aid readers in comprehending, enjoying, and using these works.

Comments for this post are closed