Reading on an iPad, or a tablet, just isn't the same as reading a book. And for me, it's not better. Even though I was, of course, excited about the prospect of an infinitely accessible library in a carry-on form, the fact is that when I try to read on the iPad, I'm doing so reluctantly, and I get through far fewer pages in a sitting than I'm used to.

In theory, I have thousands of paragraphs in that aluminum-and-glass enclosure that I'd love to get to, but in practice, it feels like a chore. Sure, I'm in the minority here, but I know I'm not the only one: Researchers from Sven Birkerts (The Gutenberg Elegies) to Margaret Mackey (Literacies Across Media) have explored whether and how the growth of digital reading has changed our reading behaviors. In my case, it has—for the worse. But why?

Black Marks on a White Page: The Physical

We have intense emotional reactions to books as physical objects. We turn books over in libraries and stores; we smell them and suddenly it's Proust with a cookie (being anosmic, I cannot address this directly); we schlep boxes and boxes of books each time we move; we browse them on shelves; any single one may instantly remind you of a particular time or relationship. And this physicality, along with the haptic nature of page-turning, has real effects on the cognitive act of reading.

Research has shown that the physicality of books is linked to comprehension and memory. A 2005 study by Thierry Morineau et al. found that readers link, at deep levels of the brain, the physically and functionally "unitary object" of a book with the text content; much as repeating something out loud helps us memorize it, this sensory-motor experience reinforces focus and comprehension. In e-books, though, the connection between the text and material is at a remove that removes this reinforcement.

That haptic problem may not be avoidable with today's technology. We can, however, look at a few more immediate issues that I, and others, have with reading on an iPad. We can look at why they're issues, and what can be done to improve the experience.

Putting a Gloss on Things

The glossy, reflective screen of the iPad can be seriously distracting—sometimes it's a physical strain, sometimes it's a mental strain, but both degrade the reading experience. As a graphics professional friend of mine pointed out, you have to adapt to the iPad in ways you don't have to adapt to a book. He then demonstrated the not-quite-graceful pose he had to hold when he last was on a plane to keep screen glare to an acceptable level. Maybe it's an unintended consequence of my screen-cleaning OCD, but this happens a lot, and makes sitting with an iPad often less comfortable than sitting with a nice, matte-paper book.

The second problem with Apple’s glossy screens is that I often find my eyes refocusing to bring the reflection in the screen into focus (I'm not vain, I'm just always there). This is a physical strain, but more importantly it takes me from reading the words on the screen to "reading" the image that's suddenly unavoidable. Once this happens I have to take action to refocus my eyes and my attention, just to get back to what would have been uninterrupted on paper.

This is forcing the user to task switch. Task switching, an active concept in psychology since the 1920s, is when we have to change our attention from one thing to another. It's important to realize that each time you ask a user to task switch, there is some switch cost; the best-known contemporary research shows how talking on the phone impairs driving performance. These costs may be large or trivial, but I think we can all agree that any cost can totally ruin it when the user's goal is to concentrate on or "get lost" in, say, Twilight fanfic.

I can't speak to how this plays on other types of displays, such as E Ink. Does losing the gloss eliminate this problem? I'd love to hear from users.

Thick as a Brick

Marketing copy is sure to tell you how thin and light the latest and greatest tablet is. I'll argue that the latter is good and should go further, but that the former attribute actually works against the latter.

How do we hold the things we are reading? Whether we're sitting, standing, or lying in bed, we're applying force with one or two hands. Generally, we put the majority of the burden on the muscles and tendons on the back of the hand in what's been called the "iPad pinch grip". Online forums have threads like "Beware of iPad Hand" and the Daily Mail surveyed a few slightly hysterical users. Is this better or worse than with books?

A third-generation iPad weighs right around 660g and is just under 10mm thick. Hari Kunzru's The Impressionist, a 480+ page hardback, weighs noticeably less and is about 45mm thick. The physical stresses on your hands when sitting (or lying, or standing) and holding the two in standard reading positions are different, because of simple physics.

I'm no biomechanist, so please correct me if I've got this wrong, but high school physics shows that the combination of thinner and heavier requires more "pinch" force to hold an object in a reading position. This in turn puts more strain on the ulnar nerve, the commonly strained dorsal tendons, and other areas that we already sacrifice to Repetitive Strain Injury demons. Alternately, a thicker book gives us more leverage in the "pinch," and a magazine is lighter. Print simply hurts less to hold. Perhaps when we get to the point when our tablets are made from a single, lightweight sheet, all will be cool.

Nook and Kindle readers, how do you feel about this?

The Light in Your Eyes

Another critical usability difference is that paper isn't a light source, while most tablets and e-readers (and certainly the iPad) are. Even with your book-reading app of choice (mine is Blue Fire, after Amazon bought and stifled Stanza) in Night Mode and the system's brightness turned down—here I have to interject that the iOS Auto-Brightness feature has never really seemed to work for me—your tablet is a powerful light source firing photons into your skull from mere inches away. This makes it problematic for reading in bed.

When the arrays of light receptors in our eyes detect that ambient light is low, as it is after sundown, our brain secretes sleep-triggering melatonin. If we bombard our eyes with artificial light, we affect this process and potentially disrupt our sleep cycles. This is especially true with light in the blue range of the spectrum—and computers and tablets emit a good deal of that (though you could counter this if you want to sport stylish, orange-tinted glasses).

This is not a settled matter, scientifically. The Los Angeles Times quotes Frisca Yan-Go, the director of the UCLA Sleep Disorders Center, as saying that light-emitting gadgets such as the iPad keep your brain, and you, away from sleep. But other researchers have suggested it's more a personal preference or habit. Studies have yet to definitively confirm or deny either case, but the trend leans toward considering light-at-night a potential problem.

Yan-Go also points out that iPads are relatively heavy compared to books. I know I've interrupted a good drifting-off when my iPad dropped from my hands directly onto my kneecap. Ouch! This is where Nicholson Baker's preference for the iPhone as an in-bed reader could be good safety advice.

I won't go as far as Baker in picking the iPhone over a book in bed, but I have noticed the iPhone screen, perhaps due to its small size, doesn’t seem as bright or glossy. Is this less of an issue in a smaller form factor (fewer photons), or is it related to the book only reflecting ambient light?

How We Do: The Behavioral

When you change the nature of a thing, you also change the way we see, behave, and interact with that thing. Part of the strength of an e-reader is that it is not a book, so we are comfortable doing non-book things with it. But we have to account for how its non-bookness changes our actions, and how that can work against the goal of concentrated reading.

All tablets and e-readers are multifunction devices. This is true even of dedicated e-book readers; they still have access to multiple titles or other media available at a few taps. On the iPad, even when it's not connected to a network, I could not be reading in favor of writing, sketching, or playing a game. And when there is online connectivity, I have the constant urge to see if anything's changed on the internet.

When you're reading a book, you're reading that book (unless you're doing the "book and switch"). The switch cost is high and we know it. This helps us stay on task and be happy about it. In contrast, an immeasurable amount of R&D has gone into ensuring that switching titles on an e-reader or apps on a tablet has as low a cost as possible. This is a good thing, though it comes with the tradeoff of distraction (we can read a lot into the market for desktop apps that "lock" you into one app, or block you from the internet).

The result is that we have a seriously altered set of behavioral cues and pressures when reading on a tablet or e-reader.

Something Is Happening Here, But You Don't Know What It Is

Whether you fall into "Brain Age" optimism or "Is Google Making Us Stupid" pessimism on brain plasticity, it seems to be settled science that what we do regularly shapes our habits, expectations, and abilities. This is how we learn to be proficient at sports, reading, or living online. As Anne Mangen of the National Centre for Reading Education and Research at the University of Stavanger writes, we are constantly training ourselves to avoid concentration. "Skills inherent in screen-reading are quite different from print reading: for instance, the required ability in certain kinds of screen reading such as hypertexts, to navigate in a network without any defined and unambiguous beginning and end." (Even if you're not into the neuroscience, it's good UX to know that users fall into and value the familiar.)

And especially problematic for concentration or "flow" is that the rewards system in our brains is set up to encourage this—to hook us on fresh stimuli. Each time we find a new email in our inbox, or a funny tweet, or our status "liked" on Facebook, the brain squirts out a dollop of happy chemicals. As Christopher Chabris writes in The New York Times, "What the Internet does is stimulate our reward systems over and over with tiny bursts of information (tweets, status updates, e-mails) that act like primary rewards but can be delivered in more varied and less predictable sequences. These are experiences ... [that] happen to be even better suited than the primary reinforcers to activating the reward system." Mangen agrees: "What we do when we (often quite apathetically) switch from channel to channel, is auto-stimulate our own attentional response."

This is what we're up against when we hold our iPads and swear that this time, really, we'll get through The Magic Mountain or Finnegans Wake. The cards are stacked against us biologically, and that stack gets higher the more proficient we are with our devices.

As users, we can fight against these biological and learned behavioral cues, but it's hard and, ironically, we're working against these wonderful, modern devices. I, for one, am weak. What could we as hardware, system, and app designers do to help reduce distraction? How atomic must the settings be to free us from the very affordances that make these e-readers so special? I'm sorry, I lost my train of thought there—had to go check my email. Nope, nothing. Let's move on.

I Go to Work

Another form of learned behavior related to reading on an e-reader is the fact we're staring at a screen, whether it's E Ink, LCD, OLED, or some other technology. We do so many things and spend so much of our life in that position—how does that affect your expectations and behavior when you're just trying to read, dammit?

In their 90th "Wait, What?" podcast, Savage Critics and semi-pro comics readers Jeff Lester and Graeme McMillan discussed reading comics on iPads, with McMillan stunning Lester by admitting he doesn't like it. To placate Lester, McMillan has to clarify that his problem is that he spends so much time at his computer to work his dozen or so writing gigs that if he tries to read on his iPad, facing an electronic screen puts him in "work mode,” whether he wants that or not.

Conversely, I'm used to using an iPad for 1) communicating, whether via email or social media, 2) doing things like typing or sketching, and 3) playing silly games. So my mind gets conditioned to see iPads as two-thirds distraction devices, and this places extra mental tasks on me not to engage those, but to get through a book instead.

How can we improve as users? I suppose we could, as mentioned before, set strict limits and re-train ourselves. In my case, turning off all networking and delete all non-productive apps; in McMillan's case, working a bit less and playing a bit more. A more difficult question would be, how can we, as designers, help the users? Here we'll need to do serious user research and build specialized options for, say, my persona and McMillan's persona.


This is not to say there aren't some use cases where even I find the iPad a brilliant solution for reading. As with all usability evaluations, there can be situations where the use case can overwhelm other, perhaps conflicting, situations.

Last summer I worked abroad, and traveled occasionally for it. Though as I mentioned before, iPads are heavier than most books, they're lighter and easier to pack than multiple books. I usually want to read more than one book throughout an international flight, so an iPad works well there (though the glare issue can be worse on a plane, the lack of network access plus the peer pressure not to spend hours on Tiny Wings helps overcome my stated concerns). In addition, I had network access at work, but no set mailing address, so having an iPad allowed me to keep up with magazine subscriptions such as the New Yorker.

And comics look great on an iPad—the aspect ratio is perfect, the colors are vibrant, and swiping to turn pages just seems a better fit for comics than for books.

So I'm not saying it's a lost case, by any means. My experience outlined here is with the iPad. Some of my concerns may be unique to that device, and I'd love to hear from readers on other platforms. Some of my concerns may be mooted as thin-and-light technology advances, some may be addressed by screen setting options, some we can take upon ourselves in customizing and/or limiting our tablet, but will books ever be totally replaced in our hearts and minds?

Some of us will continue to find unique user experience value in our dead-tree friends until you pry them from our cold, dead hands.


Books and tablet images courtesy Shutterstock


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When you read a book, you have a constant indicator -- the physical page in the physical volume -- of where you have come from and where you are headed, at least in terms of distance from cover to cover. It's akin to watching a movie, where the plot-line gives you reference which you can calibrate when you can scroll the time bar to find out how much has gone by and how much remains to be seen.

The notion of making progress toward completing an essay or resolving a mystery or concluding a related or fantastic journey cannot be gotten from a tablet. Moreover, the text and graphics disappear into one another; there are no glossy pages that you can turn to to get the visual story in short order.

I find the tablet ingenious, inevitable, and insulting to the author and the reader. Nevertheless, it's cheap and e-books and e-articles cost less as a result of the tablet's availability. However, is more-prevalent literacy -- affordable because it's cheaper -- a boon when the reader's experience is less?

Okay, I confess...I like the animations in e-books. But these are seldom the point.

An amazing article! All very valid points and i thought everything was pretty much covered until i read the first comment with "The idea of knowing where about in a book you are by the thickness that you've devoured and the slice that you have left." This is a great point.

Seeing the physical pages you have read, and being able to see a visual representation of your progress through the book gives a great sense of accomplishment. In a digital format every page is the same, there is no "yay im half way through' moment when you see the book mark sticking out the spine when you put the book down that night.

"Something Is Happening Here, But You Don't Know What It Is" is very true. Something just isn't the same. Yet.

That was a great article! I have to say that whilst I own an iPad I don't use it for reading. The fact that I stare at a screen for most of my day is one thing but also the idea that when my iPad runs out of battery (and I'm can't charge it) I would be forced to stop reading. I also tend to read on public transport and in public places alot and I find it safer to fall asleep with a book in my lap than an iPad.

The list goes on!

Ultimately even if I could store every book I could ever read in a digital library I would still go out and buy the huge volumes and if necessary lug them around in suitcases (as I have done previously!) There is something about turning a page and discovering whats on the next page. The idea of knowing where about in a book you are by the thickness that you've devoured and the slice that you have left.

I love books!

Great article!

I don't think any tablet can ever be as easy to read as a paper book. Flipping a page has much less cognitive load then clicking a button\swiping, seeing the screen refresh\animation, re-interpreting the screen, and resuming reading.

It's all about trade-offs.

Dan, I would agree with most of what you said. However, I use the lightweight Samsung Galaxy Note. Its 5.3 inch screen provides a good reading experience. I use a matte screen protector to minimise reflected light. The advantages of an electronic book reader include: it allows you a very wide choice of books when on the road, without having to carry a bagful of heavy books (as I once used to); it saves physical space at home that once used to be taken up by books; and, it gives you instant access to books 24/7, wherever you are.


Do you have such experience, don't find the books you want in library or store ?
Maybe e-book is only one choice for you.

Agree with everything. I have a Nook simple touch e ink reader and 10 inch tablet. Neither is suitable for reading books to be honest. Again, absolutely agree with everything you said.

You may accommodate the glossy screen to the viewing angle if you get a grip on the iPad.
Better yet, the physical stresses on your hands is eliminated if your grip is located at the center of gravity.
You can checkout the cover/grip combo solution to your problems here:

Great summary of what is not quite there yet about e-book reading, which many of us do want to work. What you said about memory resonates with my own e-book experience. I tried using an e-book reader for more than a year, but put it away when I realized I could remember very little of what I read on it. I speculated (unscientifically) about the experience in two blog posts here:

The article by Morineau et al is particularly fascinating; it sounds like the people in that study had a similar experience to mine (except they got chocolate for it). This sentence rang true: "because of its generic form the e-book seems to be a bad candidate for being a contextual index for the retrieval of information." What they don't mention there, and what I experienced, is that the generic form of the e-book has an impact that worsens the more you use it. I also think there are ways to improve e-books to change this, and hope somebody out there will.

Aaand I just discovered that this commenting system doesn't allow paragraph breaks at all -- sorry for the Big Block of Text.

Thanks for all the great comments!

It's good to hear people say that E Ink screens, and smaller/lighter dedicated readers do address some of the concerns. As I said, I have little to no experience with them, and still think it's a shame that there's an unresolved tension between some of the features that make the iPad compelling and what would help make it a better reader. I may sound heretical here, but I'd rather not have one more "device" to manage (see some of Witold Rybczynski's writings about how historically many "time-saving" devices have ended up being time sinks) -- though I'm a hypocrite here, because if I could, I'd own a psychotic number of books.

And yes, the promise of being able to take notes in an ebook, and export that text, along with drawings, links, etc., is an awesome one! Evernote and other apps aren't quite there, but... .

Nat+: I'm not sure what a "Padpaul especial" is. And one of the top hits on a web search for that term is your own comment!

EtherealMind: Good point about technical books and documentation. That is a use case where electronic readers can shine (no pun intended), with the ability to auto-update technical manuals, search, interactivity, good chats and graphs you can highlight or zoom in on. That also seems like a use case where E Ink would suffer. How did you "train" yourself? Though I'm not sure I'd want to risk my already compromised newspaper and book abilities.

James Slater: Check the original research papers. They'll explain better than I can that the proximity of a light source affects the density of photons, in part due to the angle they reach your eye. Also, the light isn't diffused, as it is when it hits and bounces off paper.

Laura Austin: It may be a mental block! But I was trying to get at what are the factors. And maybe I need a full drachma, not just a few obols, in exchange for changing my behaviors.

Cat: Good point about cultural differences. I did not address how in some places printed books maybe be difficult to find, expensive, or even banned.

I have an iPad and a Kindle and agree with most of what you say here, the iPad is fantastic as a work companion, in meetings, for reading news online (the app experience is fantastic) and social media. It's too heavy for me to use to read novels and like you I'm acutely aware of the damage the screen glare does to my eyes. That's where the Kindle comes in, much smaller and lighter, e-ink with no back lighting, it's perfect and I can buy book any time anywhere at a fraction of the cost. There is a definite place for both in my life, especially in South Africa where printed books are very expensive.

Totally disagree with most of this. It's a mental block you're having. The obols available from online reading (highlight, favourites etc) far outweigh the is disadvantages. I read on a kindle most and on the iPad. Never been better. Although twitter is a major distraction on the iPad!

"Another critical usability difference is that paper isn't a light source, while most tablets and e-readers (and certainly the iPad) are."

How is light being emitted from a screen different from light being emitted from a lamp and bouncing off a highly reflective surface such as white paper?

Please Please try an e-ink reader. I have the old Kindle e-reader with the keyboard. There is no real distraction. Granted, switching from one book to another is easy, but it's not really built for any other function. The weight isn't an issue, the grip is fine because the kindle and even these new 7" tablets are made to fit in your hand as opposed to the iPad. I get my "dollup of happy chemicals" when I get to hit my arrow button and move to the next page. While the iPad let's you do this, on screen, this is one of the ways in which I still have a physical relationship to what I'm reading. I really wanted to agree with the premise because I do think there are some problems, but most of the issues that you raised, aren't issues for me because of the way I use my kindle e-reader. I would say, take a flight and read a few books on the kindle, or an e-reader like it, and then take one night and read with it before going to bed. After that, I think some of your concerns will be addressed. Leave the iPad for work, email, tweets etc. take an e-reader and treat it the way you used to treat your paper books.

I read a lot for my professional role and, after evaluating my need to print everything, realised that I needed to retrain myself. On consideration, I needed unlearn 25 years of imprinted routine that reading involved the physical experience of book, paper and eyes.

It took three years to retrain my mental capacity to read from a screen, and even today I'm not completely comfortable but the neither am I now comfortable reading from paper / newspaper or book.

I can't say what works for you, but maybe my perspective helps.

Well said indeed. The experience and relationship one has with books, especially favourites, is special and I know have a more holistic understanding as to why that is and where tabs fall short.

As you suggest in reconciliation, the two mediums are suited to different content and perhaps occasions too. Alongside comics Interactivity and multimedia are attractive for kids books and study titles, plus tabs and cloud services make for great convenience: commuter trains, and accessing the world's libraries. We've largely lost the oral tradition that preceded print and I wonder whether print will fare any better against digital? many of the issues you highlight could be addressed.

Well said. I was going to comment all along about how I feel the issue of iPads as books is largely psychological. But will there be a time say, in the next say 50 years, your children's children won't look at the 'dead tree friends' and think they were a burden for us?

Did you know the "Leselotte" from Aniversal ( They have the Padpaul especial for iPad. With it, it is much comfortable to read on the iPad. I use one (and have no problems with reflections). And I'm not related to the company...

Ever tried an ebook reader?
iPad (and similar tablet) are not made for book reading, so play games on it, read magazines and web sites, but take a serious ebook reader for books*.

* If you're not an apple-maniac that avoid everything without an apple on it... :P

I have the same issues reading on the iPad - however I am looking forward to trying out the new Paperwhite kindle, which promises to settle a lot of these problems.