Chief Science Correspondent
To say that I loved to read growing up would almost certainly be an understatement.
I read during class. During lunch. In the halls between classes. If I wasn't reading, I was thinking about the next time I'd be able to pick up a book. Teachers had to remind me to put my books away during class, but I would still rush through my schoolwork in anticipation of using the extra time to finish a chapter. I hated assigned "reading group," because we were restricted to reading only a chapter per day so that everyone would stay at the same pace. As a fifth grader, it felt like pure torture.
I no longer read (for leisure, at least) nearly as frequently as I used to, a fact I blame partially on the intellectual strain of being a grad student but also to the seemingly infinite distractions of the internet. Some days, it seems the only thing I read for fun is Buzzfeed and Thought Catalog. Rather than delving into a fictional character's world, I now spend an incredibly impractical amount of time examining my friends' Facebook profiles.
One of the greatest challenges of being a book-lover is space. As a child, I generally ameliorated this problem by simply borrowing the majority of my books from the library. In retrospect, this was a practical decision. Books pile up very quickly, and at the moment I do not have room for many more. As it is, my collection of books takes up more than half of my sister's closet. And that was after donating a significant portion of my collection about a year ago.
At some point, I will actually start up a respectable book collection. There is absolutely no question that my dream home would have its own library. But at least for now, my primary book collection is digital.
I joined the world of e-books in April 2011, when I received the Kindle Keyboard for my birthday. I had previously been skeptical about e-books, because I didn't think the experience of reading a book would be the same on a screen. I was pleasantly surprised.
The Kindle screen actually feels like a real book. It is not nearly as harsh as my laptop or phone screens, which hurt my eyes when I stare at them for too long. Reading from a Kindle is, in my opinion, a completely different experience from reading from most digital devices. (At least for the Keyboard and Paperwhite, which are the only two devices I have owned. I've never used a Kindle Fire, which looks more like a tablet, so I can't assess that device's merit).
First, Kindles are completely based around reading. When I read from my phone, I'm vulnerable to constant notifications from Facebook, email and various news sites. It's hard to escape into a fictional world when the real world is popping up at the top of the screen. I can theoretically use my Kindle to browse the internet, but I almost never do. It's not set up to be a temptation in the same way that most devices are.
I often find myself forgetting that I'm not reading a paper book. The only major difference that I notice is that I can use my Kindle to look up unfamiliar words in the text. This is actually less distracting than it is in paper books, where looking up definitions requires putting the book down, picking up my phone and connecting to distraction that is the internet.
Kindles are not for everyone. But I believe many book-lovers oppose them on principle before actually trying them. And that's unfortunate. It's because of my Kindle that I'm not limited to how many books I can bring on vacation, or to my apartment. It's because of my Kindle that I can start reading a book less than five minutes after hearing about it (this can actually be dangerous, and I have to stop myself from buying books on a daily basis). It's because of my Kindle that I have access to thousands of classic novels - for free. Kindle books are generally cheaper than their paper counterparts - sometimes a lot cheaper. In fact, my Kindle saved me a lot of money in several of my college courses.
Last month, Public Radion Internation wrote an article titled "Your Paper Brain and Your Kindle Brain Aren't the Same Thing." PRI editor T.J. Raphael said researchers have found that readers' minds tended to wander from topic to topic, whereas paper readers delved into what Tufts University professor Maryanne Wolf calls "deep reading."
"We know a great deal about the present iteration of the reading brain and all of the resources it has learned to bring to the act of reading," Wolf said in a 2010 Nieman Reports essay. "However, we still know very little about the digital reading brain. My major worry is that, confronted with a digital glut of immediate information that requires and receives less and less intellectual effort, many new (and many older) readers will have neither the time nor the motivation to think through the possible layers of meaning in what they read."
I did not provide my experience with the Kindle in an effort to refute Wolf's work. Anecdotal evidence does not equate to a scientific study, and I would never attempt to argue that it does. However, I believe it is worth mentioning that one researcher's opinion does not constitute an academic consensus. A 2013 study published in PLOS, for example, found that the visual experience of reading Kindle and paper books were actually not significantly different.
I was unable to obtain Wolf's recent scientific studies on the topic, so I cannot speak to her research methodology. I therefore do not know if her research targeted all on-screen reading, and whether this work included or specifically focused on Kindle reading.
I share my experience in an effort to encourage book-lovers not to immediately reject the Kindle based solely on principle. I will be following new research in e-books and brain function (and I am in the process of acquiring Wolf's research, which I plan to review in the future). At the moment, researchers simply don't know the exact effects of e-books on the brain.
I still find myself "losing myself" in digital books, attaining that feeling that is nearly impossible to describe but every book-lover has experienced. Amazon does an amazing job of making me forget that I'm reading off a screen. I know many of my fellow book-lovers feel the same way. Ultimately, I think it's something that is different for each person, and for me switching to Kindle was the right choice.