As a child, Courtney Young lost herself in the worlds she discovered among the stacks at the San Antonio Public Library.
Now, as the president of the American Library Association, Young has dedicated her life to preserving that experience for future generations. With National Library Week coming up April 12, bibliophiles might expect an oratory from Young about the importance of print books in the age of Kindle. But Young isn't concerned about whether future librarygoers will get the stories and information they want from pages in books or those on screens.
“Libraries have always provided people with the information and material they want,” Young said. “Sometimes that’s on a screen, sometimes it’s on a page. The main thing for us is that people continue to cultivate a love of reading.”
The countdown to the end of print extends beyond the early 1960s —when communication theorist Marshall McLuhan predicted print becoming obsolete — to the 1890s, when French journalist Octavo Uzanne blamed the impending death of books on new inventions like Thomas Edison’s phonograph. Today, many have made similar predictions in the wake of e-books.
“While paper will be around as long as we're around, with the digital computer we have at last come up with an invention to rival (it),” technology theorist and writer Nicholas Carr wrote in The Week in 2013.
Yet rumors of print’s death seem to have been exaggerated, again. There were industry shakeups, like takeoff e-book sales in the wake of Kindle’s 2007 introduction that contributed to the demise of large book chains like Borders. But print book sales have since stabilized and parts of the sales industry are growing. The number of independent bookstores increased 20 percent between 2009 and 2014, despite the recession.
“In the past, we’ve had predictions that audio devices would kill the book and it just hasn’t happened. I think we’re seeing the same thing with e-books now,” Carr said. “There’s something about the printed page that people really like and that isn’t matched by the alternatives.”
While the demise of print media doesn’t seem to be on the immediate horizon, Tufts University Center for Reading and Language director Maryanne Wolf says people should do everything they can to keep print relevant.
“We should preserve print and books as long as we can, because they provide something valuable,” Wolf said. “There’s an elusiveness about the transitory nature of anything on a screen.”
Wolf says the nature of working on a computer or reading on a screen naturally lends itself to distraction — especially in a world where people depend on multiple devices at once. Even on devices like tablets, where book pages can fill the screen, links that lead to a word’s definition can serve as a distraction.
“The basic message of working on screen is you are on call. You’re triaging between one or two devices or demands at one time and there’s this backdrop of what stimuli will attract you next,” Wolf said. “We’re all accustomed to that, but multitasking has multi-cost.”
Wolf says distractions or even the unconscious expectation of distraction on a screen is a threat to the practice of deep reading, or reading that results in retaining the facts or ideas being read.
Wolf’s theory is that because people aren’t born learning how to read, reading is a skill that’s literally built in the brain through neural connections she calls reading circuits. She says those connections may not be as strong when made on a screen rather than a page.
“It’s not that you can’t do deep reading on a screen, we’re talking about the ease of how you get into it,” Wolf said. “The emphases are different. Amid all the interruptions on a screen, we are actually diminishing the amount of words we really take in when we read.”
Wolf isn’t alone in the theory that print books help learning comprehension. A 2013 Norwegian study of 10th-graders found that students quizzed on material read in books scored “significantly better” that those who read the same material from an online PDF.
Carr believes that part of the reason books heighten comprehension is because of their tactile benefits. Carr contends that physically holding and handling a book, especially for educational purposes, helps create a more concrete connection with the information in the book.
“We tend to underestimate the benefits of the tactile nature of printed pages,” Carr said. “Having a sequence of pages to flip through at once rather than access to one page at a time on a screen seems to help us remember information better. We seem to form a mental representation of a physical book in our minds.”
The ‘biliterate’ brain
Wolf says if people don’t take conscious action to connect to what they’re reading, society stands to lose a lot more than a good exam score.
“Skimming has become the new norm and when we do that, we are eliminating the entire beauty of what the author of a novel painstakingly labored over,” Wolf said. “If we lose print, the very richness of our language will be gradually, insidiously changed.”
Wolf says in order for people to continue getting the most out of text, they’ll have to develop what she calls “biliterate” brains — brains that are trained to read online and offline in the best way to gain and remember information.
“Those connections (in the brain) can atrophy and be lost,” Wolf said. “We will have to be constantly forcing ourselves to go off screen and exercise our print reading brain so we don’t lose it.”
Carr suspects that the stabilization of print book sales means people are already aware that they don’t get the same reading experience from e-books and that down the road, people who love reading will adapt to using both in different situations.
“What we’re seeing is that e-books provide another format that has its own advantages,” Carr said. “Like audiobooks, people will use e-books when they feel it’s more convenient. There’s no sign that all printed books are going away.”