Why are laptops better than books

Does the screen ruin our reading pleasure?

uni: view: In your current project "Books on Screen", you investigate how the reading experience differs, whether one reaches for the classic book or the e-book. How did you approach this question, can literary experience be measured at all?

Hajo Boomgaarden: Among other things, in which we conduct experimental reading research: In our current project, for example, we invited over 200 test subjects to read. In a cozy reading environment - in a classic reading chair, in pleasant light, there were even biscuits - they were given a chapter of a novel by Arno Geiger to read. One group the classic book, the other the e-book version on an e-reader.

Günther Stocker: Reading experiments usually work with short, straightforward and often only stapled texts as a contrast to the text on screens. We deliberately chose a longer, literarily demanding text and took the haptic and spatial experience of the book into account. And then we not only asked about the general understanding of the "story", but also went into the specific narrative method, the metaphor, etc.

uni: view: Reading research is carried out by various departments. Your team is also interdisciplinary - but with a focus on literary studies. What makes your study special?

Stocker: From a literary point of view, what one can find fault with in many experiments in reading research is that the literary text as such often plays a secondary role in them. That is why I find it very important that literary studies intervene much more in reading research, because pedagogues and psychologists have different priorities.

Research project on the digitization of reading
With the increasing spread of e-books and reading on screens, the reading culture appears to be changing dramatically, namely away from concentrated, in-depth reading, which is considered the "appropriate and natural" form of reading. The interdisciplinary research project "Books on Screen" is now looking into the question of how this changes literary experience. The aim is to gain important knowledge for the sciences involved, but above all for the social institutions that support the reading culture - i.e. schools, universities, bookshops and publishers as well as libraries.

uni: view: What is better now, digital or analog?

Boomgaarden: Our results so far contradict the culturally pessimistic assumptions that everything would go down the drain with the digitization of literature. For the reading experience, the immersion in the text, the emotional involvement, etc. it actually plays less of a role whether one is reading the book or the e-reader. Rather, what is changing is the way we handle books, our reading behavior.

And there was a significant difference in the area of ​​spatial orientation. Those test subjects who had read the text in the form of the printed book were able to remember passages from the beginning of the section read better than the e-book readers.

uni: view: You can't put an e-book on the shelf to impress visitors ...

Stocker: In fact, participants in the focus group interviews that we recently carried out as a supplementary method to the experiments tell us that they also buy books in printed form that have become particularly important to them while reading them as e-books and put on the shelf at home. It has to do with an idea of ​​intellectual possession, including the iconicity of the book. If you see it on the shelf every day, then you know that it is present in your spiritual universe. We also find that the presence of a book strengthens the memory of it, while the content of read e-books is forgotten more quickly. These are the first insights from our focus groups, without claiming to be representative. But they help to identify certain patterns with which we continue to work.

Boomgaarden: Conversely, participants in the focus groups describe that, since using e-readers, they have been reading in situations in which they previously never picked up a book. Now all of a sudden they are reading at the tram stop, even if the waiting time is only three minutes.

uni: view: Speaking of public transport and waiting times: What about the reading experience when reading on smartphones?

Boomgaarden: E-readers are an attempt to copy the book, and they seem to have succeeded. Mobile phones and tablets have a completely different potential for distraction. If the pandemic allows, we will carry out experiments in the second part of the project in which we have literary texts read on smartphones. What interests us in the following is why some people prefer to read certain texts digitally and others prefer printed ones.

Stocker: Beyond the reading medium, we are also concerned with the different types of readers. The influence of the reading medium on the reading process and the after-effects are heavily dependent on the person reading it. That is another factor that, from my point of view, has to be added.

uni: view: What do you understand by reading types?

Stocker: There are people who are really looking for tension when reading, others who prefer aesthetically demanding literature, and still others say, "I want to hide myself from my reality while reading".

uni: view: What are the social effects of the findings of your project that you hope to have?

Boomgaarden: We have noticed that our results make people look a little less sniffing at e-readers and the digitization of reading. The world doesn't end every time a new medium emerges. There is no question that something will change - we are investigating in which direction and with what consequences. Our results are then transferred to other areas, such as pedagogy, where it is examined how schools or university teaching are influenced by them. Or in the direction of libraries, which have to react to this change.

uni: view: Do you read analogue or digital at home?

Boomgaarden: I read literature analogue and only rarely on vacation on the Kindle.

Stocker: When it came to reading literary texts, I made a self-experiment with an e-reader a few years ago, but soon returned to printed books.

uni: view: Thank you for the interview! (ak)

Hajo Boomgaarden is Professor of Empirical Social Science Methods with a focus on text analysis at the Institute for Media and Communication Studies and currently Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Vienna. Günther Stocker is an associate professor for modern German literature. The two doctoral students Lukas Brandl (German studies) and Annika Schwabe (psychology) are also involved in the FWF project "Books on Screen. On the Digitization of Reading", which will run until the end of May 2022.