An interesting study via Salon finds that reading on paper edges out screens (e-ink, LCD, and so on) when it comes to understanding and recall. The reason seems to be that a sheaf of paper, so tactile and easy to scan, taps into primal geolocating instincts where screen reading provides only abstracted location cues at best, i.e. scrollbars and laggy pagination. A book presents a series of physical landmarks for us to navigate by.
Based on observations during the study, Mangen thinks that students reading pdf files had a more difficult time finding particular information when referencing the texts. Volunteers on computers could only scroll or click through the pdfs one section at a time, whereas students reading on paper could hold the text in its entirety in their hands and quickly switch between different pages. Because of their easy navigability, paper books and documents may be better suited to absorption in a text. “The ease with which you can find out the beginning, end and everything in between and the constant connection to your path, your progress in the text, might be some way of making it less taxing cognitively, so you have more free capacity for comprehension,” Mangen says.
Even more interesting: It turns out that millennials, that generation so often stereotyped as screen-gazers, actually prefer reading on paper because it provides a break from all that on-screen multitasking.
Because of these preferences — and because getting away from multipurpose screens improves concentration — people consistently say that when they really want to dive into a text, they read it on paper. In a 2011 survey of graduate students at National Taiwan University, the majority reported browsing a few paragraphs online before printing out the whole text for more in-depth reading. A 2008 survey of millennials (people born between 1980 and the early 2000s) at Salve Regina University in Rhode Island concluded that, “when it comes to reading a book, even they prefer good, old-fashioned print.” And in a 2003 study conducted at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, nearly 80 percent of 687 surveyed students preferred to read text on paper as opposed to on a screen in order to “understand it with clarity.”