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E-books take longer to read than printed books, but resistance remains futile

July 6, 2010

Amazon's Kindle

I’d love to crow over the news that it takes longer to read fiction on a Kindle or iPad than it does in a good ol’ printed book, as reported by CNN and elsewhere. But the whole story smells funny to me, and I don’t think it really means much of anything.

As readers of this blog know, I’m agin’ e-readers and electronic books for a variety of reasons, from the aesthetic (books smell purty) to the nostalgic (books were good enough when I wuz a boy!) to the practical (e-books will kill bookstores, a cultural catastrophe) to the apocalyptic (e-books rewire the brain, making us less human and preparing us for assimilation by the Borg).

Yet, much as I’d like to claim this new study by the “product development consultancy,” Nielsen Norman Group (no relation to the outfit that tries to figure out what TV shows you’re watching), I find the experimental protocols suspect and the conclusions dodgy.

You can find Jakob Nielsen’s own description of his study methodology, results and conclusions at his Alertbox website, but here they are in a nutshell: He took 32 users, all regular readers, and exposed them to stories in printed books, on the Kindle 2, the iPad and a desktop computer.

Five users were burned off in pilot testing, leaving 27 for the main study. Of these, three were discarded for “measurement

Apple's iPad

flaws,” (whatever that means). Nielsen’s conclusions are based on the experiences of the remaining 24 participants.

Nielsen had his guinea pigs read stories by Ernest Hemingway “because his work is pleasant and engaging to read, and yet not so complicated that it would be above the heads of users.” On average, participants read each story in 17 minutes and 20 seconds — long enough to qualify as “immersive,” or traditional narrative reading.

Participants got “almost all the answers right” on comprehension tests, so all four devices were effective at conveying information. The interesting data — books read faster than e-readers or tablets — sounds important until you see the numbers: Participants were 6.2 percent slower on the iPad than when reading a printed  book, and 10.7 percent slower on the Kindle.

BUT: The difference between the Kindle and the iPad –more than 5 percent — is dismissed as statistically insignificant “because of the data’s fairly high variability.” What the heck does that mean?

I’m no good at math, never have been, but even I can see that the 5+ percentage difference between the Kindle and the iPad is almost as great as the 6.2 percent difference between the iPad and a printed book. So if 5+ percent isn’t statistically significant, then why is 6.2 percent? Was there some magic line crossed between 5 and 6?

If you think the Kindle is convenient, just wait until we're all Borgs!

PC World notes the small size of the study group and asks some interesting questions. For example, would people in their 20s read faster on a screen than older readers, given their greater familiarity rewith electronic devices in general?

Some sources — CNN for example — suggest some people might “shy away from e-readers if further studies prove they effect reading speed.” This overlooks Neilsen’s one truly significant finding: Participants in the study reported greater satisfaction with the Kindle and iPad than with the printed book — even though they reported reading print more relaxing than reading from an e-reader or tablet.

Neilsen’s conclusion: A bright future for e-readers and tablets, which will deliver sharper screens and other refinements in a hurry.

My conclusion: We live in a gadget-loving age, and electronic reading devices will supplant printed books whether it makes any sense or not.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. rachel permalink
    July 6, 2010 2:10 pm

    I think when looking at the validity of a study the number of participants is very important. And 27 really isn’t even close to enough. Additionally, the 5% difference between iPad and Kindle seems very significant when the difference between the printed word and iPad is only 6.2%. Additionally, I would like to know exactly what they were reading, were they reading different stories, or did they read the same story three times, in that case I would imagine that they would read it faster each consecutive time.

    I find that I read faster, am more likely to skim and therefore retain less information when I read words electronically. But that’s just based on my personal observations and therefore I acknowledge the possibility that my results may be skewed.

  2. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    July 6, 2010 2:45 pm

    It’s my assumption that the participants read a different story each time. Hemingway wrote plenty, so no need to repeat. I can just see the people, though, after “Hills Like White Elephants:” “What was this about again?” “I dunno, but she was upset about something.” “And he was mean about something.” “What was this story about again?” “Uh, the hills looked like white elephants from the train station bar.” “I don’t even know where it’s supposed to be taking place.” “Spain. Ebro is in Spain.” “That’s ridiculous. There aren’t any elephants in Spain.” “Let the air in where?” “Maybe if they drank less they’d make more sense.” “That’s always the truth, isn’t it?”

    As for reading from a screen: After a while, reading anything on a screen makes me start to itch, and after awhile I”m itching all over, and I have to run screaming down the stairs and jump into the pool. This can prove embarrassing, especially if there are tourists or children in the pool, for a grown man to jump screaming into the water with his clothes and shoes on.

  3. July 6, 2010 4:00 pm

    It could be that some are finding reading on eReaders slower is because of the brain tumors that are forming and getting in the way. Of course, I’m being facetious, but only sort of. They are finding links between heavy cell phone use and brain tumors, and eReaders, iPads, etc., are going to have that same sort of heavy use, where people are going to be staring at them within a foot of their face for hours. It can’t be healthy, and I think we’ll be learning over the years.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      July 6, 2010 9:49 pm

      I am now climbing back into my chair after falling to the floor in paroxysms of uncontrollable laughter…

  4. Sean permalink
    July 7, 2010 8:35 am

    Just in to the Newsplex: Resistance *still* remains futile! Even to gadgets that cause illness.

  5. Sean permalink
    July 7, 2010 8:43 am

    And we have a new leader in the slow reading movement. “Kindle: for greater absorption and
    comprehension than iPad or print. Because
    our page-turning software is really
    @(!?-*}%# slow.”

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      July 7, 2010 11:09 am

      Every weakness a strength!

  6. July 7, 2010 12:17 pm

    I find it impossible to read a screen for very long. My eyes start burning, I feel a headache coming on, my attention wanders. It can’t be good for a reader to pull a marathon session with a bright screen glaring into his/her eyes. When it comes to a “real” book, however, I can go for hours and hours, sometimes read 200 or more pages in a day and not have any side effects other than coming away with an other-worldly feeling in my head and not wanting to leave the dream world the author has created. I still cannot believe these Kindles and other machines will take over the book world. They’ll be around but their usefulness will be limited. I do believe the eyes and the brain will eventually rebel and force us back to the comfort of the printed word. Pollyanna you say? Can’t help myself.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      July 7, 2010 8:03 pm

      I say you are a dreamer, Duff, but perhaps you are not the only one.

  7. Connie permalink
    July 7, 2010 6:15 pm

    I wish someone would buy me an iPad so I could test this theory (which does seem sound to me).

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      July 7, 2010 8:01 pm

      Well, why didn’t you say so? Lessee, my credit card’s around here somewhere….

  8. Monica permalink
    July 7, 2010 8:00 pm

    I am definitely old school when it comes to the printed word. I do not enjoy reading anything of length electronically, as it tends to hurt both my eyes and my head after a short time. In fact, I just completed two teaching endorsement courses online, and the nonfiction reading material was dull to say the least. To top that off, the accompanying headaches made it even worse. Some of my favorite early memories revolve around bookstores and libraries- the sights, the smells, the textures… I love getting into a good book (literally), and e-books cannot compare! As long as we are on the subject, what ever happened to the good old card catalog with the Dewey Decimal system? In my opinion, it has been downhill since that disappeared and the computer monitors took over.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      July 7, 2010 8:02 pm

      Ah, Monica, your words are like honey to my ears. I thought I was the only one with nostalgia for the card catelogue…

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