I think it has been years since I’ve picked up and read a physical book—for better or worse, my reading habit has gone completely digital, and I prefer my Kindle and its backlight over the printed word, or the iPad and Instapaper/Safari1. Beyond acknowledging the reality that there’s really just too much to read in the world, I didn’t think much of the transition to digital content.
It turns out that there may be a difference. The gist is that analog books allow for “deep reading”, a type of focus in reading that usually gets lost in the digital realm due to the added distractions that laptops and tablets and phones provide. There is also something about a physical object—with words printed on distinct pages that have a location in space—that solidifies memories that digital books simply cannot provide.
Even the single-purpose e-reader seems to lose out to real books when it comes to letting its readers retain what they’ve read, and when students want to remember a book’s contents, they largely go for hardbacks over LCD screens.
Distractions aside, I still think that the biggest difference between physical and digital books is actually accessibility, in that digital writing is so much easier to find and peruse2. We have not figured out how to properly manage and prioritize large quantities of reading material, and so online reading becomes disorienting and distracting, a literary buffet that suffers from the paradox of choice and an evolving model of curation.
Since I won’t be going back to these books of antiquity anytime soon, I guess I’ll have to continue to figure out better ways to skim and skip through the (continuous, unrelenting) digital flood.