Friday, 11 April 2014

Cognitive Disfluency: reading on paper versus electronic content

Penny arcade machines - too simple to be memorable?

The debate rages on about digital publishing, with a large proportion of the noise being made by consumers of literature – or at least of words placed in entertaining order. Is scanning online content changing the way we attend to the printed word? The slow reading movement seems to think so. What is it about real paper books that their defenders prefer, and do the aspects they pick out point to a fetishisation of the book-as-object – already being played on by publishers such as the Folio Society?

It is interesting watching those who prefer paper try to explain why: the smell and feel of a book, especially old or second hand; possession of an object, unchanging; portability or, conversely, heft; the satisfaction of coloured spines on bookshelves like old friends, as reminiscent of times past as fragrances and popular songs. All this, I sometimes feel, is like pointing at roundabouts, clocks and Frisbees when trying to explain one’s preference for circles over triangles.

There is undoubtedly something different about reading on paper. My own experiments with smartphone, laptop screen and e-reader versus print-out or actual book have taught me that ‘content’ (for that is what we must now call it) sticks in my memory much better when I read on the latter, so I restrict electronic reading to things I won’t mind forgetting. There is also a distinct shift at each stage when I transfer my own words from notebook scrawlings to screen to print-out, and then finally seeing them printed in a book or journal, which is an experience common to all writers I’ve consulted. Your own story seems to acquire some weight, some seriousness as an object, as it goes through these stages.  Certainly, a little like reading a story aloud, faults with the work – be they typos or clumsy expression – often only become obvious once it is printed. All this may just be down to cultural programming, but it is telling.

One explanation that really appeals to me about the difference between reading electronically and on paper involves the notion of cognitive disfluency. This is the idea that, when content is harder to digest, due to font or complexity of expression, we absorb it more deeply. Oliver Burkeman has a lovely article on the phenomenon here. Experiments have shown that students given the same material in harder-to-read formats do better on recollection tests than those given the same material in a form they can digest more quickly. I remember being upset to hear that electronic versions of books would not retain the font and layout choices of their printed precursors, and I can now justify my misgiving; as much as fonts give us subliminal messages about how we should treat a text, they can also determine how deeply we process it.

Nobody has yet come up with an explanation for why it is that we might scan, or at least speed through, electronic text, in a way we do not when reading printed words. But it appears that we do, and reading in print does readers (and, depending on the content, the authors) favours without us even noticing. Perhaps it is this extra level of engagement, a necessary intimacy with the style and specific layout of a story or novel or essay in a book, which is the intangible thing that paper-preferers attempt to point to when they argue for the bound form of words.

Cognitive disfluency goes beyond pure presentation though. This article suggests that where causal connections are not spelled out and the reader must make inferences, descriptions of situations also ‘stick’ better than in more obvious variations. This has repercussions for the way we write and read fiction. As a writer obsessed with ambiguity, I relish the thought that making my readers work harder will make them remember my stories better. Does this mean that spelling out what is happening in a story means it has less impact on the reader, however gripping the plot? Mischievously, I rather hope so.


  1. Such an interesting debate. I was recently told that apparently, when reading online, the more you have to click when reading, the better the information is absorbed. This suddenly made sense of a museum I was in in Iceland recently - I was transfixed by their information displays but couldn't figure out why each section was split into many pages, each of which had only a few lines of text or even less and I kept having to click Next. But, thinking about it, I have never spent so much time reading information in a museum, so it must have worked on me!

  2. Gosh - you made me remember what it was like reading an online version of James Joyce's Ulysses with hyperlinks instead of footnotes. Slow going, a lot of clicking, but useful and surprisingly memorable compared with other electronic reading experiences I have had! Maybe extra engagement can come in many forms. It will be interesting to see if this idea is picked up by electronic publishers, as well as educators.