Reading: Is more efficient always better?

I became aware of a recent PLoS ONE article, “Subjective Impressions Do Not Mirror Online Reading Effort: Concurrent EEG-Eyetracking Evidence from the Reading of Books and Digital Media,” thanks to a LISNews item entitled “Reading e-books easier than printed versions for older people” and consisting of one sentence and a link to–well, not to the PLoS ONE article but to a news story about the article. (The link above goes directly to the actual article, by the way).

The sentence:

Older people may find e-books much faster and easier to read than their paper editions, a new study has claimed.

That’s a direct copy of the first sentence of the news article, so I can’t fault it as such.

I responded to the news article in a comment:

Twenty-one people. And their preferences were dismissed as “cultural bias.” And, lessee, books were better than ereaders but tablets were better than books. Among twenty-one people. And based not on the people’s own reactions but on external measurement.

That drew an anonymous response (seems like very few commenters at LISNews choose to identify themselves), titled “External measurement = objectivity” and reading:

So if we wanted to gauge how much faster certain shoes make people run, we should just ask them which ones feel faster, and not time them?

Regarding sampling, the older adults reading faster on tablets still has p-value of < 0.0001. What number would be sufficient to outweigh one’s a priori incredulity?

To which I responded, a bit later and after skimming the article (my response entitled “Objectivity is a tricky thing”:

I may be objecting more to the post’s headline than to the study itself. I regard “easier” as a combination of subjective and objective, so, yes, I’d place considerable weight on actual responses from people being asked that question.

Telling people “Oh, you don’t really like reading print books or ereaders as much as you like reading tablets; that’s just cultural preconditioning” is a bit Orwellian.

I am fully aware that, in fact, I read the San Francisco Chronicle more rapidly (that is, I move through the text faster) on my Kindle Fire HD 8.9 than I did in its broadsheet form. But if you ask me which I prefer, and remove the $530/year reason we switched (the difference between the Kindle subscription price and the print delivery price), I’d say “the broadsheet, any day.” Is that cultural preconditioning? Maybe. But it’s also the truth for me.

This matters because some agencies–schools, some libraries–seem bent on insisting that everybody move to ebooks (which, by the way, would have meant eInk readers when this started) regardless of preference. Telling me “but you’ll read faster” doesn’t cut it. Telling me “you’ll enjoy reading more”–well, you know, that’s not an objective measure.

If I wanted to determine whether people prefer certain shoes and, indeed, whether they found running in them more pleasant/easier, I’d ask them. And I’d pay attention to the answers.

The next response, also from Anonymous, basically says that because you can enlarge the type on ereaders they have to be better for old folk (after all, none of us actually wear glasses that actually work)–and that one, specifically favoring eInk readers over tablets, is interesting because the study found eInk readers inferior to printed paper (not books–books weren’t part of the study) on objective measures.

Enough prologue

Maybe my second response is all I really need to say. Fact is, I have moved 100% from reading the daily newspaper in physical (broadsheet) form to reading it on a Kindle Fire HD 8.9. Fact is, I pretty clearly do read it considerably faster (and probably read more of it), so I’m guessing that the tablet is more “efficient” than, well, the most degraded form of print available to most of us.

And, all else being equal–that is, if the Kindle subscription to the Chronicle wasn’t one-eighth the price of the print subscription, and if the print version was consistently on my driveway when I got up–I’d still be reading the print version. I enjoyed it more. I’m not about to go back to it, but I miss it.

That’s called preference. It’s one big reason I believe print books will be with us for many decades to come.

And for literary reading, long-form reading, immersive reading, it has damn little to do with efficiency. Claiming that X is “better” because it is more efficient is a remarkably narrow way to think. By that standard, all of your restaurant dining should be at fast food joints: They unquestionably offer faster and much more cost-effective ways to get calories into your system than, say, even the cheapest table-service restaurants. If I say I prefer a hamburger with fries at the First Street Alehouse (for $8.49) to one at Burger King (for, what, $1?), that preference is real, and I’ll argue that the Alehouse burger is a better meal, even though the Burger King meal clearly wins on every measure of efficiency.

Beyond that…well, read the study and see whether you find it convincing or in any way conclusive. For example:

  • All of the text was in Courier New, which “equalizes” issues but is one of the least reading-friendly typefaces around.
  • Where the ebook reader and iPad 2 were offered in their usual form, the print–not book–was sheets of paper on a music stand.
  • The actual observed error rate (measure of comprehension) for text read on tablets was higher for both tablets and ereaders among older readers, but the researchers managed to massage that increase (which looked to me like more than a 10% difference) into oblivion.
  • The actual observed reading speed was not “much faster”–it was less than 10% faster, on samples averaging less than 250 words (this was strictly a test of quick reading)
  • I see a number of statements suggesting that data that didn’t fit the hypothesis was removed–one text sample was ignored, several results were removed.
  • I’m not a social scientist and will never be one, but the concept that a sample of 21 people is in any way a conclusive study strikes me as…well, never mind, that’s not really important. (None of the subjects wore progressive bifocals because it would interfere with the objective measures. Many and perhaps most of the readers my age and older who I know–and I’m an “old folk” for this study–wear progressive bifocals. Never mind…)
  • The researchers seem to spend a lot of time explaining away the overwhelming preference of the subjects for the print versions as being “cultural rather than cognitive”–and, as I read it, seemingly not even worth discussing.

I’ll assume that the study shows what it claims to show (despite my doubts). If that’s true, by the way, it says that the Kindle (not the Fire) and Nook are terrible devices–the ereader failed on all measures. I don’t believe that to be true either, in the sense that I really do believe that millions of people find eInk-based devices to be pleasurable ways to read.

And that’s probably more than enough for this discussion. More efficient isn’t always better, and for long-form reading, preferences matter. Which doesn’t mean “everybody should read print books” (although I’ll assert that it does mean you probably won’t read many long texts in Courier!); it means people should be able to read books–or long texts–in the form they prefer. Tell me that the preference is “cultural rather than cognitive,” and I’ll probably respond: So?

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