Books and Mortar

A memorable (to me) segment on the old Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was “Share a Little Tea with Goldie,” in which a wide-eyed hippie, played by Leigh French, found various things to say “Oh, wow” about. I have been thinking about one particular episode in which Goldie excitedly demonstrated to viewers an invention she’d come up with. She took out her contact lenses, then wrapped wire around them in such a way that the wire curled around her ears and the lenses were in front of her eyes. She had, in other words, “invented” eyeglasses.

This has been on my mind because of a move Amazon took last month. The giant online retailer acquired some real estate in Seattle, filling the space with several thousand of the books it offers on its website, some knowledgeable clerks, and a few cash registers. Far out, man. Amazon “invented” the bookstore.

Amazon's brick-and-mortar bookstore.

Amazon’s brick-and-mortar bookstore.


Beyond the obvious irony, the decision spoke to something that’s become increasingly clear: the report of the death of print books was an exaggeration. (No “greatly exaggerated” in the original Twain quote.) The most recent report from the Association of American Publishers, covering book sales in the first half of 2015, shows a 10 percent decline in sales of electronic trade books from the same period last year. Over all, print books (hardcover and paperback) have stabilized at about two-thirds of trade-book sales, e-books at 25 percent, and “other” (mostly audio) the remainder. Moreover, only a particular kind of electronic book has been consistently successful. According to Nielsen Bookscan, two-thirds of e-book downloads are novels, and of that group more than 60 percent are genre titles: romance (the biggest chunk by far), mystery, fantasy, and thrillers.

That makes sense. It’s been my experience, and the experience of virtually everyone I’ve discussed the subject with, that e-books don’t work very well for material (choose one or more of the following qualities) that is complicated or difficult, that one wants to remember, or that one is using as source material. It’s not just my friends and other geezers who feel this way. According to a review of the academic literature on the topic published last year by M. Julee Tanner of San Jose State University, even

the current generation of young people, the digital natives who should have no cultural bias for the printed word, report in survey after survey that they prefer learning from books to learning from screens; many report that if they do discover an important text on the Internet they are likely to print it out before attempting in-depth reading.

The limitations of e-books are not merely a matter of personal preference. The research has found that people really do retain less of what they have read on screens. Tanner gives several reasons that have been found for this, including:

  1. The importance of page geography. “When people are trying to locate a particular piece of information they have read, they can often remember where in a printed book they came across it — high or low on a page, verso or recto. and at a certain depth in a page stack. Paging back through a text to find a particular passage remembered by its location is the cognitive equivalent of retracing one’s steps through a forest, searching for familiar landmarks along the way.”
  2. The distraction and cognitive burden of hyperlinks. “Countless studies from the 1990s through the present have shown that readers of linear text actually understand better, learn more, and remember more of what they have read than readers of hyperlinked text.” The problem is aggravated, obviously, when one is reading a computer or tablet connected to the Internet and the whole virtual world is at your fingertips.
  3. Even though technology allows one to take notes on an electronic text, notes taken on paper are more effective. “Recent experiments … confirm that taking notes in cursive facilitates comprehension more effectively than typing notes on a keyboard, possibly because the greater speed of typing leads to verbatim notes, while note taking in cursive tends to be a synthesis of content in a reader’s own words.”

Don’t get me wrong. I love my Kindle Fire. I catch up on New Yorkers on it every night, and I greatly enjoyed reading Stephen King’s 11/22/63 on it. It’s just that when I need to fully digest a nonfiction text, paper is the only way to go. That’s why I printed out M. Julee Tanner’s article, marked  it up, and had it on the desk in front of me all the way through writing this post.





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