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I Read a Book Today, Oh Boy!

When is the last time you read a book?

Really sat down with a real book in your hands and read for an extended period of time?

As an avid reader who started at about age 4 –  I just couldn’t wait to read what kids now call “chapter books.” – I was shocked recently to realize I hadn’t completed a book (other than for work) in months. I might have picked one up and bravely started, even gotten a chapter or two in, but to have actually spent a long, lazy afternoon or evening buried in a book – it’s been far, far too long.

You can still curl up in your favorite chair for a digital read. Though the nuances of reading from the printed page may be a bit more romantic.

It’s not that I don’t read – I would guess that most of us, between our computers, tablets, and smart phones, are “reading” (technically) all day and half the night. 

But a person in an online (of course!) forum recently posed a question that got me thinking: he asked how we “learned” in class. Did we take notes? Did we study the notes? Did we listen and then write our notes later? Did we re-write our notes? Did we take notes when we read text books? 

I vividly recalled as I thought about these questions that if I wrote notes as my teacher was giving a lecture, or as I was reading a textbook, that I didn’t really have to do much more with that information. The act of writing more or less locked the information away in a visual memory. When I needed to, I could call a picture of my notes back up in my mind and, presuming I’d taken good notes and transcribed what I was hearing well enough, I had that information available.

I noticed some years ago, as I did less and less writing (hand writing) and more and more typing on a computer keyboard that this same process of recall wasn’t as likely to happen. I figured that the very act of writing with a pencil or pen had something to do —at least for me— with learning. 

A digital tablet book read is a completely different, tactile experience to reading from a printed page, certainly. But does this limit the experience of the read itself?

Many years ago, I read a book whose author investigated how our brains are organized for taking in information. Most of us, he discovered, were visual. Our key sensory input was based upon sight – show us something, and if we’re focused, we’ll likely remember it. Fewer people are organized with sound as our lead input system. If we hear something, we’ll remember. And fewer still are organized spatially or “kinesthetically,” that is, based upon where we are and what we’re physically doing as we learn. His thesis was that while all of us use each of these systems to some degree, we have one system that is the one we rely upon the most, and the other two lag behind in some sequence.

And of course, the act of taking notes, which you see, while listening to a teacher (whom you hear), and are busy physically writing on paper (a spatial/kinesthetic experience) puts all these systems to use at once. That all made sense – though I never followed up to learn why typing didn’t seem to have the same power, for me at least, that writing did – but I wondered if young learners of today will simply be wired for typing (or “thumbing”) over handwriting. Moreover, when I learned that many schools today have simply dropped “cursive” off their curricula and teach children only keyboarding and printing, I was not the only one to wonder what this would mean (aside from losing the ability to read old letters and papers, as we have lost the ability to read cuneiform and other ancient written styles) to our brain development.

According to scholars, our brains do very different things when writing (especially cursive) than when typing. “’Handwriting is a complex task which requires various skills – feeling the pen and paper, moving the writing implement, and directing movement by thought,’ says Edouard Gentaz, professor of developmental psychology at the University of Geneva. ‘”Children take several years to master this precise motor exercise: you need to hold the scripting tool firmly while moving it in such a way as to leave a different mark for each letter.’”

“Operating a keyboard is not the same at all: all you have to do is press the right key. It is easy enough for children to learn very fast, but above all the movement is exactly the same whatever the letter. ‘It’s a big change,” says Roland Jouvent, head of adult psychiatry at Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital in Paris. “Handwriting is the result of a singular movement of the body, typing is not.’” (The Guardian.com, Science, December 2014, by Anne Chemin)

The scientists go on to explain that handwriting is also unique – like a fingerprint – one to a customer. We can work to refine our handwriting, and emulate “perfect” penmanship, but each of us will develop a style, a way we address the paper, even a favorite “feel” of a particular pen or pencil. (Hence the high cost of some pens; I still love the feel of a fountain pen versus a Bic, and a medium point over a fine.)

I watched a woman take notes in a meeting recently; she was a leftie, and while my sister, who is also left-handed, writes with her hand curled over the paper so that she is facing the paper as it sits upright, this woman literally turned her paper sideways and wrote downhill, toward her body. I was so fascinated I forgot to take my own notes!

The scientists also felt we left something behind when we lost those “marginal notes” that are common when handwriting. Cross-outs, scribbles and doodles, quick drawings or charts that simply don’t exist in a digital world. (Well, they do in that you can access versions of a digital document, but versions isn’t quite the same as crossing something out and choosing another word, or adding a star or an arrow beside something we really want to recall.)

While some scientists argue that speed more than makes up for what is lost when we aren’t using our bodies to write, old style, for others, the “body memory,” or “muscle memory” of the time and skill required to write a sentence versus type it is far more important that the rapidity with which I can type.

While some scientists argue that speed more than makes up for what is lost when we aren’t using our bodies to write, old style (I can type as quickly as I think, at least to an extent, and therefore my ideas flow faster – I will avoid the discussion of Twitter here, and simply let the reader’s imagination take over), for others, the “body memory,” or “muscle memory” of the time and skill required to write a sentence versus type it is far more important that the rapidity with which I can type. I can certainly attest to the loss of memory for things like spelling, and mental maps, thanks to the digital age. I vaguely recall when I’d study a map, “see” my route, and then memorize the turns at each intersection or landmark. Now I plug in Waze and hope I don’t lose my connection.

Back, now, to books. What about the act of reading —really reading— a book. And on paper, versus on a tablet or digital device. 

One of the things I loved about fiction was the sheer ease with which I could learn about something. Granted, a writer of fiction didn’t have the same obligation to be accurate as a textbook writer, but I still remember how each Nancy Drew mystery was set in some location that ended up teaching a young reader about some aspect of life: a button factory, a circus, a ski slope. While this was not high level learning, it introduced the child to a skill or a place or an event that would otherwise not have been part of their vocabulary. If intrigued —and I often was— the child could go on to find out more.

So science today will continue to conclude that reading is likely to boost intelligence and overall knowledge, as well as empathy (for both novels and non-fiction reading). But this, of course, isn’t limited to paper-and-binding books. 

What about the advantage of reading a “real” book versus its e-book counterpart?

Again, that physical stimulation of page flipping, the feel of the paper, even the smell of the ink and perhaps slightly musty smell of an older volume all contribute to the multi-faceted experience of a book over a digital screen that varies little from book to book. Remember how the cover of that book felt, or the typeface on the cream-colored paper of this one looked? The picture on the dust jacket? The act of slipping a bookmark (and which one did you use for that book) to save your place? That’s all taken care of by the computer now. Even the sheer size of a book can add to the entertainment value (I still have 300 pages!), especially if you’re enjoying the read.

Did you have methods of coping with various book types, like turning from side to side with a heavy volume to keep the “reading” page upright, or rolling the non-reading side of a paperback over? Putting your finger in a book to hold your place when you were interrupted? I had (and still have) a habit of reading the very last sentence of a book as soon as I start it. Some people think I’m ruining the ride – but I like the notion of “how will it get there?” and “why is this character still there at the end?” But it’s neither as easy, or as much fun, to slide your scrubber to the end of a digital book as to flip to the end and only read the final sentence.

RealSimple tells us that a 2009 Sussex University study indicates that reading a good, engrossing book may reduce stress to a significant degree; and another advantage of paper-over-digital is simply the light. Light aimed at your eyes is less relaxing than light spilling onto the subject you’re studying. Researchers find that the light from a digital reader may actually inhibit sleep if reading in bed is your favored method of nodding off.

And the choice of what we read is also significant in terms of relaxation: texting or slipping through trails of webpages does little to relax us, and might even increase our stress levels, as opposed to entering the world of a fictional hero or heroine and immersing ourselves in another time and place.

So I challenge you: give it a try. Next time you’re in a meeting, use a paper and pen versus note-taking on your computer. Pick up a book from your bookshelf rather than the Kindle. There’s no right answer; but it is, perhaps, worth your consideration.

Nancy Roberts
Writer, voice over artist, information achitect, very curious person.