Read Any Good Tweets Lately?

By Donald Christiansen

So what are you reading today? A print book? An e-book? Something else? It was not that long ago that publishing experts were forecasting the demise of print books in favor of e-books. This did not happen, and e-book sales have been relatively flat since 2012.

Researchers in at least 100 studies have probed the advantages and disadvantages of paper versus screens in reading efficiency, comprehension, retention and satisfaction.

In a Scientific American article, Ferris Jabr noted that evidence from these studies suggests that today’s screens and e-readers fail to provide readers with advantages in navigating long texts in intuitive and tactile ways.

The conclusion that digital natives would not opt for print given the availability of e-books has been largely disproved. Students, like many of us long finished with our formal education, do read e-books, often because they are less expensive or even free. Yet many students still purchase print copies of e-textbooks that they had already received at no cost.

The habits we learn from “living online” may hamper our concentration when we undertake to read an e-book. Too often we go online to find the answer to a specific question, and thus are not in the habit of completely reading much of anything online. Farhad Manjoo notes that we live in the age of skimming. No need to come up with a clever ending to anything we write online-no one will get that far, he asserts. Even when reading an e-book, it’s so easy to switch to something else. “There are several books on my Kindle [that] I’ve never experienced past Chapter 2,” he notes.

Comprehension Issues

Studies comparing comprehension when reading identical texts in both print and e-book format almost always give the edge to print. We do not concentrate as much when reading online as we do when reading print, the experts say. We are used to being distracted when online, enticed into following new paths one after another. How often have we gone online seeking the answer to a particular question, expecting it to require no more than two or three minutes, and an hour later find ourselves still online, unable to list all the topics we have pursued during the hour?


Physical Issues

The younger generation is beginning to support their elders in expressing its comfort with the physical aspects of print books. “I like being able to know where I am in a book, able to reread a passage I know is in the middle of the previous chapter,” one university student explained. “I like being able to make notes in the margins, and to insert bookmarks so I can return easily to them,” he said.

Other students find the notes scribbled by previous owners often thoughtful and informative.

Then there are readers of all ages who find the sensory rewards of turning pages or flipping to reread a certain passage more enjoyable than clicking or scrolling. The latter, say the experts, can also lead to mental fatigue, which is further exacerbated by reading from a screen.

Of course, there are reasons that some students do not like every aspect of reading in print. Naomi Baron, a linguist at American University, through her many surveys found the most frequently expressed dislike of reading in print was that it requires more time because the student reads more carefully. She also notes that only about 16 percent of online readers read word-by-word, and that 90 percent of students multitask when reading on-screen compared to only one percent when reading in print.

Purveyors of e-book readers have not totally dismissed the favorable aspects noted by fans of print books. For example, both Kindle and iPad offer a “page-turning” feature that sometimes includes not only page numbers, but headers and illustrations on each virtual page.

Science and Math e-Books

Electronic textbooks for math and science courses are generally well accepted by students, particularly because of their access to online portals that provide detailed study problems.


Another Viewpoint

Not everyone agrees that print reading has advantages over screen reading. Kevin Kelly, writing for Smithsonian Magazine, notes that “[Print] books were good at developing a contemplative mind. Screens encourage more utilitarian thinking. A new idea or unfamiliar fact will provide a reflex to do something: to research the term, to query your screen “friends’ for their opinions, to find alternative views, to create a bookmark, to interact with or tweet the thing rather than simply contemplate it. Screens provoke action instead of persuasion.

“We live on screens of all sizes-[and] will never be far from one. Screens will be the first place we look for answers, for friends, for meaning, for our sense of who we are and who we can be.”

I could go on, but according to the experts, most of you who began reading this column are by now tweeting, eating, reading something else, or watching a movie.

If you happen to be an exception, thanks for hanging in, and I’d welcome your comments.


  • Hayles, N. K., “How We Read: Close, Hyper, Machine,” ADE Bulletin 150 (2011).
  • Nielsen, S., “How Users Read on the Web,”
  • Manjoo, F., “You Won’t Finish This Article: You Will Not Comment on This Article,” Slate Special Feature, retrieved Oct. 14, 2016.
  • Kelly, K., “Reading in a Whole New Way,”, retrieved July 21, 2016.
  • Rosenwald, M. S., “Why digital natives prefer reading in print,” The Washington Post, Feb. 22. 2015.
  • Jabr, F., The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens,” 2013,, retrieved July 21, 2016.
  • “How We Read Books Today,” The Week, July 1, 2016.
  • Anderson, P., “France’s Short Edition Lengthens Its Reach: Now Dispensing Stories in France and San Francisco,”, retrieved July 21, 2016.
  • Brown, N., Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World, Oxford University Press, 2015.
  • “What Is an EBook Reader, and How Does It Work?,” Deb in Books, Technology, posted Dec. 28, 2009.

Donald Christiansen

Donald Christiansen is the former editor and publisher of IEEE Spectrum and an independent publishing consultant. He is a Fellow of the IEEE. His Backscatter columns can be found here.

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