“Even fifteen minutes a day.” A cellist I know counsels her students that regularity matters more than binge practice sessions. However busy we are, we can find fifteen minutes.
Reading, like playing a musical instrument or speaking a second language or exercising, involves habit. There are times we spend the whole day reading a book. But we also go for stretches when at best we glance at news headlines or check incoming text messages. When we do pick up that book again, it can take some settling in before feeling we are home.
Constancy matters because over time, we may forget what the book we were reading is about. What is the story line? Who are the characters? What is the formal argument being presented? One magical quality of a good book is that you can get emotionally “lost” in it. You get mentally transported somewhere else. Putting a book down one day and picking it up the next, it’s easy to re-enter the world between those covers. The longer your absence, the harder the re-entry.
These days, we have multiple reading platforms from which to choose. Besides print, there are eBooks and audiobooks. Digital has many virtues, including the convenience of loading numerous works onto a single device, along with generally lower cost than print. Audiobooks are handy for commuting or working out at the gym. What’s more, we can feel the book is being read aloud just for us.
What about print? A few years back, tech gurus were predicting eBooks would replace print. Recent trends are proving them wrong. Reading is now firmly a “both/and” world – both print and digital. Yet current research shows people are still more likely to have read a print book than a digital one. There are good reasons why.
The first is concentration. In a study I did with over 400 university students in five countries, 92 percent of participants said the reading platform on which they concentrate best is print. Students complained about distractions when reading onscreen. And as we know, if you’re distracted, your stress level can go up and attention span go down.
The second reason is that we probably remember more of what we read in print. I say “probably” because researchers are still figuring out how to move from laboratory-style comprehension tests to measuring memory that matters. Memory for abstract concepts or how the pieces of a story line fit together. Memory that connects our reading with other things we learn and with our everyday lives. Students tell us they remember more when reading in print. Not surprisingly, some report spending more time when reading print and reading more carefully than with digital texts.
Thirdly, research suggests it is easier to get “lost” in a print book than in an electronic one. This ease likely stems from our physical connection with what we are reading: holding it in our hands, turning the pages, tangibly measuring what portion we have read and how much of the book still awaits us.
And so: Try to read every day. In print, if you can.
Naomi S. Baron is professor of linguistics at American University in Washington, DC. She is author of Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World (Oxford University Press).