Format Wars

Textbook companies are eager to replace their paper books with electronic ones, but apparently it is harder to learn from an ebook than it is a paper one. Stavanger University researchers, for example, find it is harder to put plot points in order when the text is read through an electronic device. They say it might be the haptic qualities of paper that improve memory:

[The differences for Kindle readers] might have something to do with the fact that the fixity of a text on paper, and this very gradual unfolding of paper as you progress through a story, is some kind of sensory offload, supporting the visual sense of progress when you are reading. Perhaps this somehow aids the reader, providing more fixity and solidity to the reader's sense of unfolding and progress of the text, and hence the story.

The source material for the study was only twenty-eight pages, though, so how much physicality plays into it is debatable. And with only fifty people in the study, even significant differences could be statistical noise.

It hardly matters because it is the wrong question anyway. We should be asking if ebooks are as good as they are going to get, not which format is better.

An Evolving Technology

The codex, a bound book, was a significant improvement over the scroll. Photo: Bible.malmesbury.arp, photo by Adrian Pingstone - Own work. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The codex, a bound book, was a significant improvement over the scroll. Photo: Bible.malmesbury.arp, photo by Adrian Pingstone - Own work. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Instead of thinking about ebooks as a different, potentially inferior technology, we need to think about the format change as the start of an evolutionary leap -- and not the first one for writing.We have been developing our written language and format for around thirty thousand years, and in that time there have been four other major format changes:

  1. Cave painting, the first method of storing our thoughts and transferring them to others.
  2. Tablets, which added portability.
  3. Scrolls, which increased storage space and improved portability.
  4. Codices, (the bound book to you and me), which improved skimming and provided rapid access to any part of a text.

Each of these format shifts had their own evolutionary path. For example, even though the codex appeared in around the first century CE, the index did not show up for another thousand years or so. Even mixed-case lettering, punctuation, and spaces between words were invented over millennia, with spaces between words not showing up until the seventh century CE.

Codex Thinking

In the sweep of history, the electronic text is a mere newborn. We have changed delivery methods, but very little else has happened. We are still writing and reading books the same way. Every other format shift revolutionized how and what we wrote and read; it arguably even changed the way we thought. There's no reason to think the move from the printed book to the digital text will be any different.

A lot of studies -- or at least the writing about the studies -- suggest that there is some intrinsic value to the physicality of the text. Electronic books are much harder to navigate any way other than sequentially, making it difficult to scan or refer backwards more than a couple of pages. But this does not mean that ebooks are worse than printed ones. It just means that the older printed-book interface works poorly when layered over digital technology.

It is no surprise electronic books -- commercially viable for only six years -- are inferior to a format that has been popular for nearly two millennia. But it is not because paper has magical properties, or that its physical nature is better-suited to our ape brains. It's because we're still creating and reading electronic books as though they were codices. The question is not "is electronic better?" The question is "what new things can we do now?"


  • Thanks to Jude Morrissey, who provided the link and inspiration for this story.
  • Video: Mike Matas demonstrates Our Choice, an interactive book by Al Gore.
  • The classic design text Interaction of Color by Josef Albers does things you simply cannot do with a printed book.
  • Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer has a good overview of how our thinking evolved alongside our writing technology.