Paper vs. Digital

I was standing last week in front of my bookshelves, looking up at the dusty, colorful, but forgotten books I haven’t stared at in a long time. Searching for an empty spot where to place Irene Nemirovky’s Suite Francaise, I pondered the book’s heaviness. It’s quite a thick book, a precious book, and of course, I couldn’t find any place for it. I wandered around the house, then, and found myself seriously considering and struggling between my preference of reading in paper versus the physical impossibility of storing more books at home.

I actually read both digital (e-reader or tablet) and paper books, but I totally love the touch of the page and the old resin, foliage-sort smell of books. If I can choose, I choose to hold a printed book, caress it, breath its perfume. Then, have a close look at it, page by page, beginning from the end, slowly balancing the depths of the story before jumping into it. But there’s truth in my storage problem, and setting aside all romanticism, I think it’s fair to give a thought to the digital alternative to reading (and writing) as a storage solution.

Do we read better or worse on screens compared to paper? In my case, staring at a screen compared to a book quickly tires me. When I work for long hours in front of the screen, the letters tend to come alive at some point, like little ants running back and forth from one period to the other. So, whenever I am clear enough to see the ants, I stop and walk away to grab a cup of tea, or simply leave the text until the next day. At night, however, I enjoy reading in bed, scrolling the softly illuminated screen of the tablet or the e-reader with no need for the bed lamp. But writing is different. I feel comfortable with the keyboard but somewhat less creative than with the pen. It’s as if the screen has the capacity to awaken the judgmental editor in me, whereas paper can lovingly embrace the good and the bad, and also the rubbish that often pours out together with the meaningful words.

I’ve done some research and found that when reading long, linear, continuous texts that require concentration (deep reading), the reader experiences better understanding and a greater overview from a printed medium compared to a screen. Other studies show that we believe we understand texts better when we read from a screen; however, we tend to read faster and consequently retain less compared to when reading from paper. In general, it’s quite obvious that the physical attributes of books give engaging information that makes people feel connected, browsing in a story; while a digital device remains flat, cold, always appearing the same.

I came across an interesting article that says despite the enormous migration to electronic media during the last years, neuroscience researchers keep showing that reading paper-based content brings advantages to the brain compared to digital media. By activating the ventral striatum area (seen on brain scanners), which is an indicator of desire and valuation, reading on paper has shown the highest correlation with reading effectiveness.

Another study, conducted by Bangor University and the branding agency Millward Brown on the differences in communications effectiveness of physical and virtual media concludes that:


  • Physical material is more real to the brain. It has a meaning and a place. It is better connected to memory because it engages with its spatial memory networks.
  • Physical material involves more emotional processing, which is important for memory and brand associations.
  • Physical materials produced more brain responses connected with internal feelings, suggesting greater internalization of the content.


What happens, then, with writing? I was not surprised to find also studies that suggest that the relative slowness of writing by hand demands heavier mental lifting, forcing people to increase conceptual understanding, application and retention. It seems the variety of physical writing, and the demanding motor-skill activity tends to light up our brains more than the weightless scrolling of words on screens.

It’s up to you, then, to decide what means to use when reading or writing: paper or digital. On the one hand, we have this light, uniform, aseptic, confined digital technology with endless storage space, capable of holding our entire libraries in our bags. On the other, there’s our heavy, fragrant, dusty pile of old books we can caress and look at in awe. Personally, I subscribe what Glen Stansberry, designer and creative from LifeDev, answers when asked about paper versus digital: “I can answer that question in one word: Both. Creativity flourishes with paper and pen, and digital systems are better for organization, collaboration, and storage. But unfortunately, there is no solution for people who want to combine the two. It seems like you’re just stuck with one, longing for the better parts of the other. But the answer is really simple: Use both tools, paper and digital, to effectively plan and capture ideas. It’s really not that hard.”


Paula Arellano Geoffroy is a Chilean writer that lives with her family in the Netherlands. She is also an engineer in forestry, but her true passion resides in working with both creative and technical writing. Always curious, avid reader and a perennial student, she is actually writing articles for different organizations, revising the draft of her first novel, and studying creative non-fiction and professional writing at an American university.