Two images sure to strike fear – or, at least, early-onset ennui – in the hearts and viscera of book lovers of a certain age and pulp-centric persuasion:
▪ A well-thumbed paperback edition of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” is splayed open, its spine exposed to one of the middle chapters, maybe to that scene where Huck runs into the two con artists while scavenging for berries. But the book has petrified into rock, a veritable crystallized fossil, something long out of use and valuable only to future archaeologists studying early, primitive 21st-century homo sapien reading implements.
▪ Early afternoon at the California State University, Sacramento, student union, and noses are buried in screens big and small – laptops, tablets and smartphones, all glowing and demanding attention. Not a book, as in the actual physical object, to be found among the studying horde. Except for Keandre Cruz, a mechanical engineering major over by the food court. He’s got a thick hard-cover “Adobe Digital Desktop” textbook. He’s using it to prop up his laptop, open to an electronic text he’s perusing.
The vision (dystopian to some, nirvana to others) of a bookless universe, where pixels replace pages, seemingly has gone from artistic flights of fancy – San Francisco artist Alexis Arnold’s pointed petrified-book statement in response to “the shuttering of bookstores” – to a reality in which a printed text’s utility doesn’t extend much beyond mere furniture.
Ubiquitous as electronic reading material (be it books, magazines and newspapers) may seem to a gadget-obsessed populace, the present state of reading, and maybe even its near future, actually doesn’t appear so bleak for those pining for the tactile pleasure of cradling a printed book, feeling its heft, inhaling its pulpy aroma and scribbling in its narrow margins.
There is evidence, a growing murmur, of an e-book backlash, even among the so-called “digital natives” to whom all things analog is anathema.
Since 2013, six years after the release of the Kindle reader saw electronic downloads soar three-fold, e-book sales have flattened. Global revenue for print books last year was $53.9 billion; $8.4 billion for e-books, according to the Association of American Publishers. Research by Nielsen Books & Consumer showed printed books accounted for 67 percent of all sales (hardcover and paperback) in 2014. Among e-books’ 23 percent market share, the highest percentage came from the romance category (47 percent), the lowest in children’s (13 percent).
Textbook publishers also have been shifting toward digital, but Don Kilburn, president of Pearson, the world’s largest textbook publisher, recently told The Washington Post that the shift “doesn’t look like a revolution right now. It looks like an evolution, and it’s lumpy at best.”
Even millenials, who have never known a world without digital devices, have yet to strike the death knell for print. A 2014 survey by Scholastic Press showed that, among ages 6 to 17, 77 percent of respondents say the majority of books they read are in print form, and 65 percent of the same cohort say they prefer print to electronic books.
In her new book, “Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital Age” ($24.95; Oxford University Press, 320 pages), American University linguist Naomi S. Baron conducted peer-reviewed studies judging the comprehension, ease and enjoyment of reading among students. She reports students found it easier to concentrate when reading print, easier to annotate and more aesthetically pleasing. They talked of a “deeper” reading experience with printed matter, as opposed to “skimming rapidly” and employing the time-saving Ctrl-F key function to find key words. Baron calls such skimming “reading on the prowl,” in which students toggle back and forth between the book and email, social media and texting.
Baron quotes one student’s reason for rejecting deep reading on a screen, in favor of a book, as “Life itself is in hard copy. … You lose the beauty of the words behind the screen.” Students also told Baron there’s a sense of “unreality” to reading on a digital device. She quotes a Singapore secondary school student who read a popular novel on a tablet as saying: “I loved it so much I had to save up and buy this (hard copy). Holding it makes it more real.”
In academic settings, a study by Ziming Liu at San Jose State University found 89.4 percent of college students favor printed media, compared with 2.7 percent who prefer electronic media and 8 percent saying “either one is fine.” Liu quotes respondents as calling electronic reading “shallower” and says, “When (students) need to read some documents in depth, they will print out and then annotate printed documents.”
One reason for print’s enduring popularity may be physical. In a study of several thousand South Korean students, researcher Hanho Jeong of Chongshin University found that “participants had significantly greater eye fatigue after reading e-books than after reading p-books,” the contributing factor being the “lower luminance” of words appearing on a screen.
Beyond the data, it seems younger readers aren’t as turned off by having to hold a book, magazine or newspaper and having to physically turn a page as most assume.
In a quiet upper loft at CSUS’ student union, Jose Diaz, a junior majoring in criminal justice, sat with a hardcover textbook balanced on one knee, a ring-binder notebook on the other and his smartphone just beyond reach on the arm of his chair.
“I honestly would rather go with physical books rather than e-books,” Diaz said. “When it comes to stuff that I really have to remember and get into, I need a, you know, real book. I mean, I do have one e-book for a class, but it makes it easier for me to have it physically present instead of doing the online thing. I’ll get distracted (on an e-reader), like, if I get a message. Right now, I was trying to look something up (on his smartphone) and I ended up checking my Instagram and killing time. So, yeah, it is a problem, distractions.”
Baron, in her research, found that 90 percent of students were more likely to multitask during on-screen reading as opposed to 1 percent of print readers who said they multitasked while reading.
But for students like Erica Skowronski, a senior sociology major, buying e-textbooks is cheaper and more convenient because “I don’t have to lug around heavy books.”
“Staring at a computer screen a lot, it’s hard to concentrate always,” she said. “It’s kind of annoying. You get tired. I usually buy physical books (to read for enjoyment). I do like going into bookstores. So I still buy them. There’s part of me that likes that.”
Some high school students, who use laptops and tablets provided by the school almost exclusively on campus, aren’t among the most digitally gung-ho. At Da Vinci Charter Academy, in Davis, junior Joel Pion owns a Kindle and finds it preferable when reading books that feature “choose your own adventure games” that have “levels and power” that can be accessed easier and displayed more vividly than in physical books. But when it comes to reading a novel or biography or an assignment for school, he says e-books fall short.
“A disadvantage of the Kindle I use,” Pion said, “is that if I want to check something from far back in the book it is difficult to get there quickly. Another disadvantage is that a Kindle can run out of battery. … (And e-books,) at least for me, don’t have the same dynamic as a book. A book allows for comparisons of two pages together, while in a Kindle you are locked to what is often only part of a page.”
Classmate Aviva North, a Da Vinci High senior, said if she wants to fully understand a work, she needs to read it in print.
“Reading electronically doesn’t even feel like reading,” she said. “I always get distracted by emails, the news, or social media, so it takes me forever to read books or excerpts. Also I’m much less immersed. … Having a book where you can turn the pages and see how much progress you’re making feels so much more productive. I like being able to mark up books and take notes as I go for school assignments, and it’s a lot harder to do that electronically.”
For North and other “digital natives” who aren’t print-phobic, the prospect of a future in which physical books are little more than fossils denoting an earlier time, as Arnold depicted, is troubling.
“I’m starting college next year,” North exclaimed, “and I won’t be able to survive reading everything online.”
Call The Bee’s Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145. Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis.
Reading habits study findings:
Student preferences for reading long schoolwork texts
Prefer hard copy: United States: 92 percent; Japan: 77 percent; Germany: 95 percent
Student preferences for reading long pleasure-reading text
Prefer hard copy: United States: 85 percent; Japan: 74 percent; Germany: 88 percent
Source: Naomi S. Baron: “Words Onscreen” (Oxford University Press), 2015
Reading preference of U.S. Internet users
Users who only read printed books: 46 percent
Users who read an equal number of print and e-books: 17 percent
Users who read more print than e-books: 16 percent
Users who read more e-books than print: 15 percent
Users who read e-books exclusively: 6 percent
Source: Books Stats, Association of American Publishers
Frequency of printing electronic documents in order to read
Always: 10.6 percent
Frequently: 71.7 percent
Occasionally: 17.7 percent
Never: 0 percent
Source: “Reading Behavior in the Digital Environment,” by Ziming Liu, San Jose State University
Importance of cost in choosing reading platform
Question: If cost were the same, what is your preferred medium for pleasure reading:
Hard copy: United States: 81 percent; Japan: 83 percent; Germany: 89 percent
Digital Screen: United States: 19 percent; Japan: 17 percent; Germany: 11 percent.
Source: Naomi S. Baron: “Words Onscreen”