I noticed an interesting Twitter exchange yesterday and the two people were talking about how they both absorbed information better when they read it from a paperback or a hard copy of a book as opposed to the digital versions.
This got me thinking and I did what I generally do in these situations: Began to research if it was indeed true.
While there were plenty of sites that popped up in response to that query, these two were what stuck with me the best:
The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens by the Scientific American
We live in a digital age.
Notebooks and journals are slowly becoming the refuge of a tiny part of the populace that still believes in writing things by hand.
Print newspapers have given way to news in your pocket or the palm of your hand in the form of a smartphone.
Books are jostling for space with their e-book counterparts in the shape of Kindle and e-book readers.
I have nothing against tech or the digital revolution. From blogging to giving me content at my fingertips it’s transformed my life as a work-from-home individual.
But that part about information retention was actually nagging at me, because I think it is true.
To explain what I mean, let’s do a tiny experiment.
Open up a folder on your desktop or an e-mail folder on your browser or a list of bookmarked articles. Find a folder that has information you’ve saved for later. Done?
Now, read through at least 10 of those files or articles in the next hour.
A few hours later, highlight the points in a Word Document on your laptop.
You’d be interested to know that you’d have absorbed about 10% of what you’ve read. (I admit that’s a random number. Don’t come yelling at me saying I was off by 3.75% or whatever).
Instead, if you were asked to remember a poem that you’d read in childhood, such as ‘The Daffodils’ by William Wordsworth, I can guarantee that you’d remember things like the following:
It was a full-page, two-page spread in my school textbook. The top half of the first page was covered by a gorgeous illustration of a field of yellow daffodils and the sun streaming down on them. The first two paragraphs were on page one while the rest of the poem was on page 2. Lines that stay with me even without looking them up are ‘A host of golden daffodils’, ‘When all at once I saw a cloud’, ‘And dances with the daffodils’.
The mind’s eye is so much more capable of recalling vivid details when you read something on paper, as opposed to on a screen. That Scientific American article I linked to above explains why, in more depth.
So, if reading is better when it’s on paper, what if it’s the same when it comes to writing?
When I worked on my thesis on the poetry of e.e.cummings back in 2000, I recall writing out the entire thesis first by hand. It involved numerous rewrites, scratching out and crumpling sheets in disgust. Typing it out came 6 months later, when it had to be printed and bound for submission to the university.
I wrote so much that I am baffled when I think about it now.
I admit I type faster than I write these days. But that’s because of two reasons:
- I am more used to typing now, than writing.
- My handwriting sucks, way more than you could imagine.
But here’s the truth. I LOVE writing by hand. I write every single day, even if it’s just to-do lists and tasks for the day and tiny notes in my journal.
What this has shown me, however, is that I need to write more, especially if I want to learn something to remember for the long term.
I’m frankly a bit annoyed with myself, for letting the digital world take over my ability to think and recall things with clarity. For letting me think that information at my fingertips is a good substitute for actual, deep, creative thinking.
And the only way to change that (okay, two ways) is to spend time reading and re-reading things deeply and writing things down by hand to help me remember the most important ideas.