Print or Digital: An English Major’s Tale


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Muriel Kenfield-Kelleher, English

I’m an English major. I read books; I write papers about books; sometimes I write papers about essays about books. It’s all very English-y, very papery, very book-y. It brings to mind images of stacked clothbound novels, dog eared paperbacks, the carefully organized Dewey Decimal System libraries of our collective youth.

Unfortunately, that’s not really what my academic life looks like. It’s more like a juggling act: pdf to print novel to kindle to Jstor to iPad. I don’t have to spend hours looking through the library catalogue for books (thank god), but I do have to deal with the ever-shifting demands of my teachers when it comes to what types of texts are appropriate for class.

There’s an ongoing debate about what works when it comes to reading. Digital text has obvious advantages in the area of accessibility, but do we interact with it in the same way we interact with print? Several studies have suggested that our ability to understand and remember what we read on digital formats is diminished. In a major that’s all about absorbing and analyzing other people’s writing, this issue has high stakes.

I don’t aim to synthesize decades of research into an answer to the print vs. digital reading debate. Any attempt to do that would be misleading and, let’s face it, not really part of my skill set. For a good summary of the debate over digital reading, see this article from Scientific American. The only thing I can speak to is my experience as an English major and as a reader more generally.

I do feel that I have a deeper level of focus when interacting with a print text. For one, I’m used to reading physical books. It’s what I grew up doing; the format is familiar to me and navigating it is second nature. There are also fewer distractions when reading print. Digital devices like tablets and computers open up the possibility of toggling between screens. This is great when I need to quickly look up a word in the Oxford English Dictionary. Usually, though, I’m not looking up words in the OED. Even when a distraction from reading comes in the form of something else academic, it’s often more of an excuse to put down a difficult piece of reading than a high-priority task.

Then, there are e-readers, which attempt to recreate the experience of print. The paperwhite screens that many e-readers have are awesome. They eliminate the headache-inducing glow of the computer screen, which some have pointed to as the cause of our reduced ability to concentrate on digital texts. But, the format that e-readers provide is terrible. They usually don’t have page numbers, which are essential when using a text for academic purposes. Going back through a book to find a specific quote is cumbersome and time consuming. One upside of e-readers for school use is that you can get classic novels for as little as one dollar. Unfortunately these often have formatting issues that make them borderline unreadable. For instance, I downloaded a free book for class last week in which all of the I’s had been replaced with 1’s. My kindle is perfect for Gone Girl and Fifty Shades of Grey, not so great for Ulysses.

Digital texts are usually cheaper, more mobile, and easier to access than print texts. But they have huge issues when it comes to readability. Of course, when my reading is a pdf of a critical essay or a short story, I can simply print it out if I need to. But this isn’t ideal; it’s much better for my wallet and the environment to simply read on the computer.  When I need a full-length book for class, print is the only reliable option. I simply can’t interact with a novel on a computer, tablet, or e-reader in the way I need to as a student.

So, for the foreseeable future I’m stuck juggling the convenience of digital reading with the benefits of print. But I’m hopeful that the future holds reading technology that makes digital texts widely useful for academic purposes. The e-reader of my dreams has the Kindle’s portability and paperwhite screen, the easily navigable quality of a pdf, and is as simple to annotate as a physical book. Get on it engineers.


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