Do eBooks Make Us Dumber?

If you want to follow the plot of your favourite mystery, read the print version.

By Shannon Rupp 31 Oct 2014 |

Shannon Rupp is a Tyee contributing editor. Find her previous pieces here.

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Turns out, digital readers don't soak up much from ebooks. eBook photo via Shutterstock.

As my iPad died somewhere in the last 10 pages of a whodunnit, leaving the murderer unrevealed, I cursed and made a mental note to score one for Peter, an English prof with whom I'm having a long-running debate about the value of eBooks.

He's agin'em. Not that he's a Luddite. He packs a smartphone and is entirely conversant with the app-tastic world, including innovations like Tinder, courtesy of his students.

Don't know what Tinder is? Consider yourself lucky and just read on.

Peter Babiak makes sophisticated and persuasive arguments against the digital revolution that nag at the back of my mind as I give-in to every whiz-bang technical innovation. The digital world homogenizes art and people, he reminds me. It turns everything and everyone into a disposable consumer product. It's unhealthy in the literal sense of the word to be staring at screens all the time. But it's also psychologically unhealthy in that it robs us of human connection.

He often makes an argument that paper books offer an opportunity for slow reading -- the intellectual equivalent of nutritious slow food -- while eBooks by their very nature are fast and superficial. In practical terms, the backlit screens often cause headaches and reading them is far less comfortable than a paper book. If you read on an all-purpose mobile like an iPad or a smartphone, you're distracted by text messages, social media alerts, and video calls.

In short, eBooks force you to move along briskly rather than lingering to think. Since thinking is the point of reading, eBooks often defeat their own purpose.

Tell that to the fast growing market for electronic books, is how I counter his views. That's a fool's argument of course, since most of us recognize that much of what is wildly popular is also crap. Still, it's sobering for lovers of paper to see how fast digital books have made inroads since the Sony Librie debuted "electronic paper" in 2004.

eBook sales have plateaued

As Pew Research reported at the beginning of this year, three in 10 adults in the U.S. have read an eBook in the last year and about half own tablets or dedicated eReaders. But it's also true that the sales seem to be levelling out to roughly a third of the book market, since most eBook readers are also print book readers. Only four per cent of the market reads exclusively in digital.

And Peter's view that there is something anti-intellectual in the tech itself is supported, increasingly, by research. A European study released in the summer found that eBook readers retained fewer details in a mystery story than those reading the paper version. They found the same thing with high school students, although that generation of digital natives was born into the wifi world.

Even scholars, initially thrilled at the idea of searching ancient manuscripts for key phrases, are reconsidering.

"In Google Books, the reader no longer approaches a text as a learner, but as a consumer, one who dictates what one finds and who will choose an alternative if what one finds does not immediately satisfy," writes Ryan Szpiech, in a thoughtful Tablet piece about the hazards of electronic books.

But it's faster. It's more efficient. It allows researchers to condense months of scholarly digging in stacks of allergy-inducing manuscripts to a day's work. How could this not be a good a thing?

Deep thinking and technology don't mix

But the thinkers I know are all uneasy with digital books. I'm not talking about those aging guys who live up to the stereotype of the bitter old crank defending his lawn from the young. I'm talking about people who are using the technology critically, and in many cases rejecting it because it defeats the very thing it was intended to do.

This reverse-results problem is a recurring theme with much of the new tech. Social media turn out to be named ironically, since it makes people less inclined to meet. And who hasn't made jokes about the trolls on anti-social media, as the online world seems to encourage sociopaths to behave in ways that would earn them a beating (if not a jail sentence) if they did that in person.

Lately I've noticed something a little odd about my own reading habits that has been bothering me. There are books I seem unable to read in digital. Until recently, I blamed something external -- my mood, my lack of time, the weather. Can one read a fat, Dickensian-style book like Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch in seductive sunny weather?

But increasingly I'm beginning to consider the research that says the complex nature of novels demands reading-in-print.

Certainly digital-deniers have been making variations on his point for some time. One writer pal went so far as to swear-off all digital communications for a year. For a while Analog Zsuzsi -- that would be short story writer Zsuzsi Gartner -- was infuriating everyone by refusing to use even email.

"You're just trying to bend us all to your will," I snapped one morning over a breakfast that took a week of 1980s-style phone tag to set up. Analog Zsuzsi just smiled a serene smile and exuded the calm of someone whose mobile isn't constantly winking, buzzing, and singing at her.

She endured my jokes about how she was turning eccentricity into a brand. Along with my rant that the only reason she gets away with being a neo-Luddite is that she has a publisher with a website and an agent who will deal with email requests from the outside world.

Slower is better

"No, no, wait," she began, raising her hands and waving off the rant she sensed was just ramping up. She was writing on a typewriter and printing out web-only articles to read, and had learned something interesting from her year of living analog: when it comes to the writing-and-reading process, slower is better.

She teaches and had forced students in what had previously been an online course to mail her hard copies of the manuscripts to edit before sending them back to review and discuss.

"The pace was less breathless," she said, pointing out the tyranny of texting in all its variations. She said her students preferred having more time to mull things over too.

"Think about it: if you take more than three hours to respond to an email everyone thinks something is wrong," Zsuzsi said, pointing out that it was no way to do work that required concentration and thought.

As someone who edits novels, Zsuzsi experienced what the latest research has shown: working on the paper page anchors the words in your mind better. She has always worked with a hard copy of a book side-by-side with the screen copy.

At the time, I rolled my eyes. My tech-resistant friends remind me of Marie Antoinette dressing up as a milkmaid and playing peasant on a hobby farm. That's what nostalgia is: humanity's reaction to modernization moving too fast.

But Analog Zsuzsi's passionate defence of connecting with the paper page also reminded me of novelist Scott Fitzgerald (in the 1920s) telling a journalist that he produced his first drafts in long hand and gave them to a typist. Then he edited the typed copy. He made a case for why he thought better in longhand.

At 22, I considered this precious twaddle. Little more than the self-indulgence of a rich boy who could afford to hire a typist while he played the grand gentleman wielding a gold-nibbed fountain pen. His chief rival, manly-man war reporter Ernest Hemingway, typed and he was far more successful at the time.

But they also produced very different kinds of books. And if I'm honest, I'll admit that Fitzgerald lingers in my mind decades after reading him, while Hemingway doesn't. Well, not as anything but a series of jokes about the earth moving and those artificially short but oh-so-efficient sentences.

"I don't know how you can even put the word efficient in the same sentence with fiction," said Zsuzsi, pointing out that reading fiction is a leisure activity that should never be done with any nod to efficiency.

Convenience carries weight

But speaking as an insomniac who loves getting exactly the book she wants at 3 a.m., I think convenience counts. And so it is efficiency, or rather the lack thereof, that has finally ended my career as a digital evangelist. Courtesy of a recent iTunes update, a whack of my eBooks (and audiobooks!) have been deleted and I am an in a foul mood about it.

How is this technology simplifying my life?

Throw in a battery that dies on the brink of learning whodunnit and the fact that I may not have understood the eBooks I read and I've decided to return to the printed page for anything outside of news. And I suspect I'm not alone: something is fuelling the resurgence of independent bookstores.

I dutifully reported that my romance with digital books is over only to learn that the siren song of efficiency has some pull with Peter too. He'd succumbed to an eBook app on his smartphone and admitted he was thrilled with the convenience of having the Oxford Book of Linguistics in his pocket at just the moment it was unexpectedly needed -- that's a point for my side, he said.

There's certainly a place for eBooks: reference guides and any other book you need to search. I sometimes audition a book in its eBook form and if I want to reread it, get it in print. But I'm convinced that pixels are no place for long, complex reads that you need to remember.

So now I'm like a rehabilitated member of a cult. Not only am I back on the bandwagon cheering for independent bookstores, I'm also hunting for my old fountain pen. In fairness, I need to mail Analog Zsuzsi a card letting her know she wins this argument.  [Tyee]

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