The earliest known book printed with movable metal type, 1377, a Buddhist spiritual work.

Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris.

Some think so, but it isn’t clear.

Recently I asked, “When was the last time you sat down and read a whole book in sequence? Honestly?”. I wondered, how much of the decline is technology and how much is related to other preferred time commitments?

Two readers wrote in to say that they enjoyed reading old-fashioned paper books.

Science writer Julian Baggini offers some information on the difference between reading and “e-reading”:

In a Taiwanese study led by Szu-Yuan Sun, the results suggested that reading linear texts in the manner of traditional paper books was “better for middle-aged readers’ literal text comprehension” but reading on computers with hyperlinks “is beneficial to their inferential text comprehension”. In other words, the joined-up environment of the web encourages people to make connections and work things out, while straightforward reading encourages them to take in what’s on the page in front of them. Hence the prevalence of hyperlinks and multiple windows on computers could be seen as creating either unwelcome distraction or more opportunities for active learning.

Overall, there doesn’t seem to be any convincing evidence that reading on screen or paper is better per se. “If the cognitive component is strong,” suggests Benedetto, “the cultural one is even stronger.” For Margolin, “the preference for reading on paper or a screen seems to be just that: a preference.” And, increasingly, younger people are opting for digital. The National Literary Trust survey found 52 per cent of 8- to 16-year-olds preferred reading on screen, with just 32 per cent preferring print.

The photograph of a very old book above typefies an earlier moment of massive cultural change: the invention of movable type. No longer did books depend on someone being available and inclined to copy a book out by hand. The most obvious change, in Europe for sure, was that a vastly larger swathe of society could gain information by reading on their own (formerly the preserve of learned enclaves), rather than hearing a text read aloud or recited from memory.

Many social changes flowed from that fact. It probably played a role in the Protestant Reformation because, for the first time, lay people could just read the Bible on their own. There was good and bad in that, of course, because villains and crackpots could read the Bible as well as honest seekers and earnest reformers. In other words, like all technological changes, the book was neutral with respect to the moral or social impact of those it empowered.

There doesn’t seem to be hard evidence that e-reading inclines people who would read serious works to start reading celeb gossip mags or vampire potboilers instead. Young people like e-readers because they are easily portable on buses and trains, and in lineups—often a much more important consideration for them than for those who can afford business class. But the jury is still out.

Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger.

Denyse O’Leary is an author, journalist, and blogger who has mainly written popular science and social science. Fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan’s description of electronic media as a global village...