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Digital vs Analog Reading: The Paradox of Paper

I am sitting beneath two large bookcases as I type this post. They contain an eclectic combination of guidebooks, cookbooks, "beach reads," biographies, and even first-edition classics that had previously inhabited my Grandfather's library. And yet, I started this post out of sheer frustration at my inability to successfully read and annotate a paper textbook. Since I started my doctoral studies, I have refused to touch a single piece of paper. Every book and article lives tagged and filed in either my Kindle Cloud Reader or Papers app. From my phone, iPad, or laptop, I can quickly find every title within a few clicks or taps. Unfortunately, this term I have one book that has yet to become available in electronic format.

This paperback has me completely flummoxed. I struggle to both interact with it and create an effective digital infrastructure that will allow me to eventually search its contents. I have dog-eared pages, highlights, and now a digital outline of the readings.

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On the surface, this system may appear to be effective if not redundant. I read and annotate on paper before synthesizing and summarizing digitally, carefully noting the page numbers so that I can then quickly find the original material when needed. With digital texts, I read and annotate before taking notes as well. However, with a paper book, I can neither make the text bigger when I get tired and struggle to see it nor easily erase or edit the notes that I write in pen. When a concept or term appears, I cannot quickly search the text to find other references or instantly look them up in a dictionary or via Google Scholar just by touching them. 

Though articles such as this one summarizing research papers from AERA or this two-part series about reading digitally vs. on paper present arguments against e-reading, I would like to argue in its favor. My digital readings follow me around on each of my devices. When I forget why I may have written something down, I can quickly search to locate the text. If I make a mistake when annotating, I can easily fix it without having scratch marks all over the text.

I understand the counter-arguments. Particularly with large textbooks, it can be faster to grab a handful of pages and flip to the desired location. Some readers then make spatial connections to the content (e.g. "I know it's at the bottom of the page just before the end of the chapter.") There are studies about distractibility, the role of media in eBooks, as well as the tendency for people to skim instead of deeply read or have greater experiences of eye fatigue.

However, I have one final argument in favor of my digital reading and desire for an electronic version of this text. At the time of writing this post, I can instantly search 389 articles in my Papers library and 27 books in my Kindle Cloud Reader if needed. As I wrote in a previous article, searching can lead to powerful learning when it allows readers to make connections across courses and pieces of content. I worry that despite my best intentions, this paper book will be lost to the database of my brain as soon as I complete this course.

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