I rant about paper fetishism a lot. This weird cult of the paper book habitually twists research into pseudoscience to slander ebooks as sleep-stealers, brain-numbers, and (ironically) out of fashion. It’s exhausting confronting these ignorant primitivists, particularly because I actually prefer paper books to ebooks. But I do not prefer them enough to lie or corrupt science in order to evangelize my preference as a universal virtue.
Paper fetishists, on the other hand, simply cannot stop lying about ebooks. Their obsessively dishonest denigration of ebooks is, to be honest, a little creepy. Of all the thinly veiled hate movements out there, this one has to be the inexplicably virulent. It’s just a book format, people.
So let’s talk about the latest anti-ebook polemic at Mic, which persists in ignorantly calling paper codices “actual books” in complete misunderstanding of the many formats books have gone through over the ages. Jon Levine continues the dumbing down of our discourse of book format by misrepresenting research to favor the dogma of paper fetishists.
Levine drags us through three categories of bullshit supposedly demonstrating the superiority of reading paper books: memory, comprehension, and empathy.
Levine starts with the specious claim that reading paper books helps you remember more than reading ebooks. What the research he cites actually indicates is that, when reading a paper book, the dwindling pages on the right and growing stack on the left (assuming you’re not reading a right-to-left language like Hebrew or Arabic) provide a cue to story placement.
The researcher interprets this as a tactical cue but, while the presence of a spatial progress indicator certainly provides a mechanism for greater recall, I see no valid scientific reason to specify a tactile vector for this mechanism. Who says the readers of paper books aren’t looking at their progress rather than just blindly feeling for it with their fingers?
I’d bet that most of you reading this just imagined yourself glancing at the ends of a paper book to see how far you’ve gotten. This shortcoming in e-readers could be easily remedied with a simple page-fall graphic simulator in the margins. Done and done. (Amazon, Apple, and Kobo can contact me for where to send my developer’s fee.)
Another study cited in Mic (you have to follow Levine’s link to another ebook hit piece to get further links to specific studies) compared pdf documents, on a computer screen vs. printed out, not ebooks and paper books. A print-out is not a codex. A computer screen is not an e-reader. So, this argument is shenanigans.
But, these claims have been debunked by better writers than me. Check that out, if you like, while I move on to…
This claim, that readers of paper books comprehend more than readers of ebooks, is undermined by the article Levine links to, which actually shows that it’s all about the novelty of reading on screens, and not something inherent in screen-reading at all.
Want another outside opinion? Check out what the Christian Science Monitor says about it. Bottom line? It’s a bullshit argument.
But, never mind the reliable science. After briefly misrepresenting the science, Levine spends the bulk of his comprehension section on a self-reported survey.
A word to the wise (and my regular readers are very, very wise) on how not to be taken in by specious science reporting. Surveys tell you what people say happens, not what actually happens. Not even necessarily what people believe happens. Just what they’re willing to tell a survey taker.
So, honestly, who cares which format people say helps them comprehend more? Not to come off as a complete misanthrope, but there are a million biases between reality and what human beings will tell you on a survey. If you can’t muster the healthy skepticism to recognize that, you shouldn’t be commenting on science.
SEXY AND EMPATHETIC
OMG… that last section. Levine starts by invoking a quasi-porn meme and a reference to craigslist sex trolling, then moves on to completely misrepresent the findings of a study on empathy, which did not address the format of the fiction being read.
Don’t believe me? Go check out the paper at PLOS ONE. It talks about fiction vs. non-fiction, not paper vs. electronic books. Seriously. The gall of partisans is staggering.
And then, to compound the bullshit, Levine linked once again to the bad science from the memory section. I won’t even bother linking it again here; just scroll up and click.
Long story short: paper fetishists are dishonest in their reporting on book formats. Levine is lying to you. Because that’s what partisans do.
Loyalties to groups and loyalties to universal principles like truth are simply incompatible. This is why judges recuse themselves from cases in which they have vested interests. Likewise, paper fetishists should recuse themselves from opining about the relative virtue of paper and electronic formats.
Keep buying paper books, if you like. I certainly will. But just because you buy paper books doesn’t mean you have to buy the bullshit.