Although American University student Cooper Nordquist, 21, uses his laptop most of the day, he still likes to read from the printed word for enjoyment. Despite that fact that most college students do a majority of their socializing and school work electronically, many still like to read from actual hard copy printed books. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
Frank Schembari loves books — printed books. He loves how they smell. He loves scribbling in the margins, underlining interesting sentences, folding a page corner to mark his place.
Schembari is not a retiree who sips tea at Politics and Prose or some other bookstore. He is 20, a junior at American University, and paging through a thick history of Israel between classes, he is evidence of a peculiar irony of the Internet age: Digital natives prefer reading in print.
“I like the feeling of it,” Schembari said, reading under natural light in a campus atrium, his smartphone next to him. “I like holding it. It’s not going off. It’s not making sounds.”
Textbook makers, bookstore owners and college student surveys all say millennials still strongly prefer print for pleasure and learning, a bias that surprises reading experts given the same group’s proclivity to consume most other content digitally. A University of Washington pilot study of digital textbooks found that a quarter of students still bought print versions of e-textbooks that they were given for free.
“These are people who aren’t supposed to remember what it’s like to even smell books,” said Naomi S. Baron, an American University linguist who studies digital communication. “It’s quite astounding.”
Earlier this month, Baron published “Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World ,” a book (hardcover and electronic) that examines university students’ preferences for print and explains the science of why dead-tree versions are often superior to digital. Readers tend to skim on screens. distraction is inevitable and comprehension suffers.
In years of surveys, Baron asked students what they liked least about reading in print. Her favorite response: “It takes me longer because I read more carefully.”
The preference for print over digital can be found at independent bookstores such as the Curious Iguana in downtown Frederick, Md. where owner Marlene England said millennials regularly tell her they prefer print because it’s “easier to follow stories.” Pew studies show the highest print readership rates are among those ages 18 to 29, and the same age group is still using public libraries in large numbers.
It can be seen in the struggle of college textbook makers to shift their businesses to more profitable e-versions. Don Kilburn, North American president for Pearson, the largest publisher in the world and the dominant player in education, said the move to digital “doesn’t look like a revolution right now. It looks like an evolution, and it’s lumpy at best.”
And it can be seen most prominently on college campuses, where students still lug backpacks stuffed with books, even as they increasingly take notes (or check Facebook) on laptops during class. At American, Cooper Nordquist, a junior studying political science, is even willing to schlep around Alexis de Tocqueville ’s 900-plus-page “Democracy in America.”
“I can’t imagine reading Tocqueville or understanding him electronically,” Nordquist said in between classes while checking his e-mail. “That would just be awful.”
Without having read Baron’s book, he offered reasons for his print preference that squared with her findings.
The most important one to him is “building a physical map in my mind of where things are.” Researchers say readers remember the location of information simply by page and text layout — that, say, the key piece of dialogue was on that page early in the book with that one long paragraph and a smudge on the corner. Researchers think this plays a key role in comprehension.
But that is more difficult on screens, primarily because the time we devote to reading online is usually spent scanning and skimming, with few places
(or little time) for mental markers. Baron cites research showing readers spend a little more than one minute on Web pages, and only 16 percent of people read word-by-word. That behavior can bleed into reading patterns when trying to tackle even lengthier texts on-screen.
“I don’t absorb as much,” one student told Baron. Another said, “It’s harder to keep your place online.”
Another significant problem, especially for college students, is distraction. The lives of millennials are increasingly lived on screens. In her surveys, Baron writes that she found “jaw-dropping” results to the question of whether students were more likely to multitask in hard copy (1 percent) vs. reading on-screen (90 percent).
Earlier this month, while speaking to sophomores about digital behavior, Baron brought up the problem of paying close attention while studying on-screen.
“You just get so distracted,” one student said. “It’s like if I finish a paragraph, I’ll go on Tumblr, and then three hours later you’re still not done with reading.”
There are quirky, possibly lazy reasons many college students prefer print, too: They like renting textbooks that are already highlighted and have notes in the margins.
While Nordquist called this a crapshoot, Wallis Neff, a sophomore studying journalism, said she was delighted to get a psychology textbook last year that had been “run through the mill a few times.”
“It had a bunch of notes and things, explaining what this versus that was,” she said. “It was very useful.”
When do students say they prefer digital?
For science and math classes, whose electronic textbooks often include access to online portals that help walk them through study problems and monitor their learning. Textbook makers are pushing these “digital learning environments” to make screen learning more attractive.
They prefer them for classes in which locating information quickly is key — there is no control-F in a printed book to quickly find key words.
And they prefer them for cost — particularly when the price is free. The Book Industry Study Group recently found that about a quarter of 1,600 students polled either downloaded or knew someone who downloaded pirated textbooks. Students, it turns out, are not as noble in their reading habits when they need beer money. They become knowledge thieves.
But stealing texts probably is more a reflection on the spiraling cost of higher education — and the price of textbooks, up 82 percent from 2002 to 2012 — than some secret desire of students to read digitally. If price weren’t a factor, Baron’s research shows that students overwhelmingly prefer print. Other studies show similar results.
The problem, Baron writes, is that there has been “pedagogical reboot” where faculty and textbook makers are increasingly pushing their students to digital to help defray costs “with little thought for educational consequences.”
“We need to think more carefully about students’ mounting rejection of long-form reading,” Baron writes.
And that thinking shouldn’t be limited to millennials, Baron said. Around the country, school systems are buying millions of tablets and laptops for classroom use, promising easier textbook updates, lower costs, less back strain from heavy book bags, and more interactivity. But the potential downsides aren’t being considered, she said.
“What’s happening in American education today?” she said. “That’s what I’m concerned about. What’s happening to the American mind?”
When Baron started researching her book on reading, some of her colleagues responded with pity.
“Did I fail to understand that technology marches on?” she writes. “That cars supplanted horses and buggies? That printing replaced handwritten manuscripts, computers replaced typewriters and digital screens were replacing books? Hadn’t I read the statistics on how many eReaders and tablets were being sold? Didn’t I see all those people reading eBooks on their mobile devices? Was I simply unable to adapt?”
But after learning what millennials truly think about print, Baron concluded, “I was roundly vindicated.”
Michael Rosenwald is a reporter on the Post's local enterprise team. He writes about the intersection of technology, business and culture.