Choosing books to take on holiday has got more difficult in recent years. Now it is a question not just of what to read but how – on paper, tablet, e-reader, or perhaps even a phone – and people have strong opinions on which is best. But is there any more to the decision than cost and convenience? On this question, the answer suggested by numerous studies into the neuroscience and psychology of reading in different formats is an emphatic yes.
There is no shortage of people warning of the risks attendant on the rise of “screen culture”, as the neuroscientist Susan Greenfield calls it. Greenfield has repeatedly expressed concern that, as technology takes us into unknown territory, “the brain may be adapting in unprecedented ways”. Though she tends to stress that these changes might be good or bad, that hasn’t stopped her more negative speculations being picked up in the media and amplified in far more strident terms.
On the other side of the two cultures divide, the novelist and critic Will Self recently argued that the connectivity of the digital world was fatal for the serious novel, which requires all the reader’s attention. Looking ahead 20 years, he posed a question: “If you accept that by then the vast majority of text will be read in digital form on devices linked to the web, do you also believe that those readers will voluntarily choose to disable that connectivity? If your answer to this is no, then the death of the novel is sealed out of your own mouth.”
E-reading is certainly on the rise. The Pew Research Center reports that, as recently as 2010, hardly anyone in the US had an e-reader or tablet. Now half do. The proportion of the population who have read an ebook in the past year rose from 17 per cent in 2011 to 28 per cent just three years later. In the UK, figures from Nielsen, which monitors book sales, showed that one in four consumer titles bought in 2013 was an ebook, up from one in five a year earlier.