I read 70-80 books a year. And a couple blogs. And a couple journals. And the Times every morning. Lately I’ve been very curious about the booming e-reader market. It’s grown past early adopting techies and has moved into the territory of casual and serious readers. Despite all the advantages of e-readers, many book lovers (including me) have many hesitations toward anything that could disrupt their reading rituals. As the holiday shopping season approaches, one can be sure that there will be a major marketing blitz for these new devices. Here is some information regarding how we read and what changes e-readers cause.
Let’s start with a small history lesson. Up through the 5th century BCE, oral speeches were the most common modality for delivering information. Around this time early adopters began to write down the speeches on scrolls in order to continually ponder on them. For a long period this caused great uproar from governmental, religious, and cultural authorities. 2000 years ago written essays and lectures began to enjoy wide cultural appeal due to their superior distribution, time-shifting, and reproducibility characteristics. Then in 1450 Gutenberg developed the printing press and set in motion a dominant reading paradigm that’s lasted over 500 years. Today this is beginning to change with the onset of new digital devices.
How does the eye read? It does not scroll along a line of text smoothly like a rolling ball. Instead it moves in a coordinated series of movements known as saccades, fixations, and regressions. The eye jumps to a small block of text (a saccadic movement), fixates for a given amount of time, and then jumps to the next small block of text (another saccade). Sometimes, the eye errantly jumps backwards instead of forwards. This is known as a regression, and even expert readers make regressive movements up to 15% of the time. The additive effect of these 3 movements is processed by the brain as smoothly reading a line of text. One Swiss study revealed that the number of regressive eye movement was equal between e-readers and paper book on a per person level. Also, the mean fixation time decreased when a reader moved from paper books to e-readers. This means that people read slightly (albeit negligibly) faster and with the same accuracy when they use an e-reader. People certainly do not “read worse” with an electronic reader as compared to traditional books.
The eye also has a couple of reflexes that change the optics of the visual system while we read. When we look at near objects, the lens swells to add more magnification to the optical system. Deficiencies in this area are experienced as eye strain. Every reader’s eye strain will be the same regardless if they read from paper books or e-readers. If eye strain is a problem for you, be sure to visit your doctor for relief.
E-ink readers (like the Kindle) have a slightly lower contrast ratio compared to paper books. This means to read at the same efficiency, those reading with these devices need more light than when they read with paper. E-readers with a LCD screen (like the iPad) work well in dark and normal lighting conditions. They are harder to use in bright light and 100% impossible to use with polarized sunglasses.
Several marketing studies have shown that people actually read more when they use an e-reader. By more, I mean 40-55% more depending on the study! That is an awesome benefit. They have especially boosted the interest and number of books read by the 6 to 17 year old demographic – an age group where reading is dangerously low. Personally, I just bought my first e-reader and really love my experience with it. My news consumption is certainly higher, and I’m reading approximately 1 extra book a week. I have no idea why, but subjectively reading is a bit more fun too. Send me an email if you’d like to talk about e-readers (or books!!), how they impact the eye, or are just curious about getting one.
Spencer Ritenour, O.D.