What’s the most effective way to read a book? Should you stick to paper books you can flip the pages, dog-ear and write notes in the margin? What about Kindle or other eReaders, which let you download new books instantly and cheaply? Is it okay to listen to an audiobook instead, or is that “cheating”?
The research on the effectiveness of different forms of reading seems to indicate no significant difference. There’s some research in favor of paper, for instance this study that suggested mind wandering was higher with audiobooks. Other studies have favored paper over digital.
However, my overall impression of the research is that the differences are slight, and probably outweighed by personal preference or convenience. In other words, if you prefer paper, ebook or audiobook, you’re probably free to make that choice yourself.
My Approach to Reading
I use all three formats to read, and I think the benefits of doing all is better than using just one alone.
The benefit of audiobooks are obvious: you can do other stuff while you listen. True, multitasking is likely to impair your retention and comprehension compared to complete focus. Therefore, I don’t think this is a good approach if you’re studying. But, if the choice is between folding laundry without a book and folding laundry while listening to a book, you’re definitely learning more in the latter case.
Kindle, and eReaders in general, also have similar advantages. Being able to get books-on-demand helps me a ton in research, and for filling gaps when I don’t have any books I particularly want to read. The ability to download samples has become my new approach to building a reading queue—every time I hear of a good book, I get the sample and only buy when I finish that. This saves money, but also prevents me from forgetting about books I was recommended.
Although it’s not the feature most people need, I also find digital books to be much, much easier for searching. Many books don’t have decent indices, and even when they do digital search is so much faster. When I do book reviews, for instance, I often read over my notes and highlights to refresh my understanding, something much easier to achieve with digital.
Side note: I like digital search so much that when I do only have a paper copy (which is common with academic books / textbooks), I often use Google Book search to find the page numbers which have the info I care about.
Paper books are probably best for more serious study when deep learning is more important than convenience. There’s a few good reasons for this:
- Text is non-linear in general. You almost never read things in a linear progression of words and sentences, but jump back to make sense of new passages as you get more information. This is particularly true for hard books. When I recently started reading Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time, I made sure to get it on paper.
- Paper is easier for flipping back-and-forth. While a novel might not benefit so much from this, it’s essential for reading textbooks. Being able to quickly jump between relevant sections to see connections is still much easier with paper than eReaders.
How Should You Approach Your Reading?
My advice is that if you’re serious about reading more books (and learning more in general) you should have all three:
- Have audiobooks for moments when sitting down to read won’t work.
- Keep a Kindle (and Kindle app for your phone) to increase portability and access more books more quickly.
- Stick to paper books when you need to study it deeply (say for a class, work or something you expect to be difficult).
Which do you prefer? Do you use all three, or stick mostly to one source? What kinds of books do you read with each? Share your thoughts in the comments.