Unplugged: Why your weighty textbook might outweigh the benefits of a Kindle

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Joshua Jordan/Senior Staff

College students around the country collectively groan when, on syllabus day, they see the words “NO TECHNOLOGY ALLOWED” emblazoned across the top of the paper.

Although writing notes by hand seems onerous to many current college students, research shows that students who handwrite their notes retain information better than students who type notes. According to a study published in Psychological Science that tracked the progress of students after being asked to take notes on a TED Talk, longhand note takers performed better than laptop note takers when asked conceptual questions about the material 30 minutes later.

One explanation for this suggests that although laptop note takers were able to record more information from a lecture, they tended to copy the material verbatim rather than processing information. In contrast, longhand note takers — because they were able to record less material — were forced to synthesize information and make decisions about what was worth recording.

Even when tested a week after viewing the TED Talk, longhand note takers still performed better than laptop note takers.

This research linking improved retention rates with handwritten notes explains why my class syllabi this semester expressly forbid laptops in lecture halls. Additionally, some of my professors have gone so far to outlaw the Kindle versions of my textbook — hence the reason I lug my 5-pound book of John Milton’s completed works back and forth from campus three times a week.

For years, news bites and media have foretold the death of the printed word. An e-book reader monopolizes my little cousin’s bedside table instead of a teetering pile of paperbacks. My mom encourages me to read my textbooks on my laptop instead of making a trip to a local Berkeley bookstore.

However, despite e-books’ apparent monopoly over the world of book sales, younger generations today are turning more and more to physical books as an escape from constant technology. According to data from the Association of American Publishers, e-book sales fell 18.7 percent in 2016 while the sale of paperbacks rose 7.5 percent.

In addition to using printed books as a safe haven from technology, research has shown that readers connect with a printed novel better than a digital one. Readers engage in a practice called “linear reading” when they read a printed book, a method that allows readers to immerse themselves in the world of a novel. Sometimes referred to as “deep reading,” linear reading requires the human brain to analyze and make inferences based on the text, in addition to processing the content of the words. In contrast, research suggests that people who read e-books engage in “nonlinear reading,” which involves simply skimming a text, rather than processing or thinking through its deeper meaning.

In short, reading printed books literally uses a different part of the brain than reading e-books.

Printed books also appeal to our sense of smell, affecting us in a more deeply physical way than e-books. A recent study conducted at the University College London’s Institute for Sustainable Heritage suggests that humans love the smell of books because they remind of us of two of the most appealing scents we know: chocolate and coffee. Both of these are linked with the release of happiness-inducing endorphins in the human brain.

This explains why I’ve always cited one of my favorite scents as my hardcover copy of “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” — I love printed books because they literally smell like two of my favorite foods.

In addition to appealing to us olfactorily, research suggests that readers who read a printed book were able to reconstruct the plot of a story more accurately than those who read the story on a Kindle. The tactile movements associated with reading — holding the pages between your fingers as you skim them, being able to physically flip through pages of a novel looking for underlined passages — ingrains a stronger conceptual understanding of the novel in readers, just as handwriting notes causes students to better retain lecture material.

Does this mean that students will eventually all convert back to traditional models of note taking and reading? Unlikely.

Yet, this movement back to printed books and handwritten notes paints hope on the horizon for the printed word. Despite the ever-increasing technology of this world, the printed word remains a bastion of ancient, shared human connection. For hundreds of years, humans have passed copies of books back and forth, individually indulging in a common storyworld, leaving handwritten notes in the margins. Regardless of the advent of e-books, it seems as if this tradition will withstand the tempest of technology.

It seems as if I will keep hauling my 2-ton Milton textbook back and forth from Wheeler Hall, and I will keep massaging the cramps in my hand while scribbling lecture notes. But knowing that I am partaking in ancient traditions — ones proven to yield better benefits than their technological counterparts — motivates me to push through the back pain and hand spasms and appreciate print in all of its physical glory.

Contact Bailey Dunn at [email protected].