Would you rather carry your entire reading library in your back pocket, in a device lighter than a paperback, or carry just a single physical book that weighs thrice as much, and yields you Popeye-the-Sailor forearms when you read in bed?

As the world continues the transition from paper to digital, the question of which medium is better has become a serious area of scientific research. And with the education system already in the process of transitioning to e-book-based learning, the answer to the question of which medium is better now has significant implications.

To answer the question, let us begin with the most important scientific findings. In a 2012 study comparing the resulting comprehension from reading an e-book versus reading a paper book, it was shown that students’ reading comprehension was materially higher while reading the paper book. This result was replicated in subsequent studies involving different age groups and backgrounds.

The bottom line is: reading paper books results in a higher comprehension of the material and in enhanced memory retention of what was read. The reason put forward to explain the findings is that the physical representation of the same information provides a sort of map for the mind. This map is constructed from a set of tactile sensations generated while flipping the pages; from a collection of smells emanating from the paper, the cover, the glue and the binding; and from the sense of progress through the book—as the pile of pages on the left becomes thicker while the pile on the right becomes thinner. These added sensory inputs strengthen the connections to the memory of the information that was contained in the book.

Interestingly, even those accustomed to digital devices (today’s adolescents, for example), showed the same level of improved comprehension while reading the paper book—suggesting that the result was neither due to preferences nor previous learning experiences.

Furthermore, while attaining higher comprehension, reading the paper book resulted in higher reading speeds. So a perfect combination of higher comprehension with higher reading speed is attained when reading the physical version of the same book.

It seems that the argument can thus be settled relatively easily. But let us delve deeper. For instance, a 2013 study published in PLOS One found that individuals with poor eyesight or reading disorders like dyslexia benefit from e-readers because of the range of text size and text spacing options available. Extremely short lines of text that is spaced out (minimizing the so called “crowding effect”)—a feature that may seem trivial to non-dyslexics—seems to make all the difference. The study found that those with dyslexia read more comfortably and with higher comprehension on an e-reader compared to a paper book.

What about convenience? A good e-reader can carry thousands of books—likely more than one could ever read in his or her lifetime (unless one is Howard Stephen Berg). In this category, paper books simply cannot compete with their digital counterparts. For travellers, it only takes a single light device to contain the holiday’s entire reading entertainment. What’s more, e-books offer instant gratification: you can purchase any title immediately—and from anywhere in the world. With paper books, a real, physical shop is required, or a long wait for the book’s delivery through the post. Convenience, it seems, is a clear win for e-books.

What about references and related reading? The latest e-readers are equipped with a dictionary, a translation app, and are connected to Wikipedia. Having reference information immediately available reduces interruptions in the study of a given topic. It also enriches the study experience, as looking things up is more likely to occur when it is merely a click away, rather than having to look it up in another—possibly physically bound—tome.

Moreover, some e-readers—especially app-based e-readers that are accessed on a tablet device—allow for multimedia references (images, videos, quizzes, games, etc.) to be accessed. This deepens the reading experience significantly. Imagine reading about a certain historical event, and then a short video displays a summary of the key moments. Better still, imagine reading a wildlife article about the hunting habits of a certain predator, and then seeing the sequence in action in a well-choreographed short video. The effect on comprehension and long-term memory storage is likely to be higher than when reading in a paper book alone [this is a conjecture on the part of the author, as no scientific data is available for this variation].

While it seems that we have a winner, here are some of the negative aspects of using e-books. Firstly, screen luminance from electronic devices are associated with visual fatigue. The condition is more pronounced on laptop and tablet devices; e-ink-based devices are considered a safer option.

Secondly, light produced by light-emitting e-readers may interfere with the ability to sleep. A 2015 study published in PNAS found that reading an e-book just before bedtime reduced the levels of melatonin secretion (a hormone that regulates the sleep cycle). Furthermore, the use of any electronic device an hour prior to bedtime correlated with an increased likelihood of requiring more than 60 minutes to fall asleep.

What about fragility: one would care less about a book falling on the floor, while an e-reader that drops may not bounce back to read another day. Dropping one in a bath may prove even more terminal. But retailers have wizened-up to the common habits of avid readers, so water-resistant e-readers are becoming the new standard.

In sum, the results are mixed, with e-books leading by a margin. But progress need not make old mediums obsolete. Progress can involve a hybrid that includes the best of the old world combined with the refinements of the new world. A hybrid that is better than either element in isolation—at least until the ultimate e-reader comes along (emitting smells, stimulating tactile sensations, and simulating progress through the material).

The formula for this hybrid is as follows:

  1. Schools should pause their transition to e-books—the scientific evidence is unequivocal on this point. As paper books produce both faster reading and higher comprehension, any topic one wishes to study seriously should be performed with paper books. Then, to replicate e-readers’ ease of reference, in tandem with the paper book one can use a tablet equipped with a dictionary and Wikipedia for quick cross-referencing.
  2. For novels, newspapers and other light reading, especially while travelling, e-books are the better—and more practical—option. But to minimize eye fatigue and sleep disruptions, only e-ink-based devices should be utilized.
  3. For those with dyslexia, an e-reader optimized for the condition should be used for all reading materials.


Chang, Anne-Marie, Daniel Aeschbach, Jeanne F. Duffy, and Charles A. Czeisler. 2015. “Evening use of light-emitting eReaders negatively affects sleep, circadian timing, and next-morning alertness.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 112 (4): 1232-1237.

Connell, Caroline, Lauren Bayliss, and Whitney Farmer. 2012. “Effects of eBook readers and tablet computers on reading comprehension.” International Journal of Instructional Media. 39 (2): 131-141.

Jeong, Hanho. 2012. “A comparison of the influence of electronic books and paper books on reading comprehension, eye fatigue, and perception.” The Electronic Library 30 (3): 390-408.

Merga, Margaret K. 2014. “Are teenagers really keen digital readers?: Adolescent engagement in ebook reading and the relevance of paper books today.” English in Australia 49 (1): 27-37.

Schneps, Matthew H., Jenny M. Thomson, Chen Chen, Gerhard Sonnert, and Marc Pomplun. 2013. “E-Readers Are More Effective than Paper for Some with Dyslexia.” PLOS one 8 (9).

Singer, Lauren M, and Patricia A Alexander. 2016. “Reading Across Mediums: Effects of Reading Digital and Print Texts on Comprehension and Calibration.” The Journal of Experimental Education 1-18.

Tveita, Åse Kristine, and Anne Mangen. 2014. “A joker in the class: Teenage readers' attitudes and preferences to reading on different devices.” Library & Information Science Research 36 (3): 179-184.

Rod Bremer is the author of The Manual: A Guide to the Ultimate Study Method (Second Edition), ISBN 978-0993496424. The Manual is the definitive guide to Enhanced Concentration, Super Memory, Speed Reading, Optimal Note-Taking, Rapid Mental Arithmetic, and the Ultimate Study Method (USM). The techniques presented are the culmination of decades of practical experience combined with the latest scientific research and time-tested practices.

(For more about The Manual, see here.)




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