In today’s Leaving Proof: The University of Stavanger’s Anne Mangen’s research is making a strong case for print’s continued relevance in the face of e-books’ growing popularity. ALSO: We recommend recent hardcover volumes from Dark Horse, Image Comics, BOOM! Studios, and Oni Press.
Writing for The New York Times in 1992, the acclaimed author Robert Coover dramatically intoned in his essay “The End of Books” that
… the very proliferation of books and other print-based media, so prevalent in this forest-harvesting, paper-wasting age, is held to be a sign of its feverish moribundity, the last futile gasp of a once vital form before it finally passes away forever, dead as God.
In his piece, Coover contended that the emergence of hypertext—electronically-displayed text with hyperlinks that provide the reader immediate access to other texts—would effectively spell the end of the traditional print novel as we know it as writers would grasp hypertext’s potential as a vehicle for non-linear storytelling.
The thing is, we’ve actually been through all this before, in one form or another. It seems that the development of new mass communication technology is always accompanied by declarations that it will push good old reliable print to the margins (I’m as guilty as anybody of prematurely pushing the “digital is killing print” line). The French writer Octave Uzanne, in an article—also entitled “The End of Books”—published 120 years ago(!) in Scribner’s Magazine, was convinced that the near future of print was “threatened with death by the various devices for registering sound which have lately been invented, and which little by little will go on to perfection.” Fifty years ago, psychologists and educators raised their genuine concern that television would displace book reading as a common leisure activity, particularly among the youth.
But while the 19th century invention of sound recording and playback technology did give rise to new, popular forms of media, recorded sound did not supplant the printed word—the modern audiobook has been in existence since the 1950s, but it hasn’t really replaced its print predecessor outside of select, specialized contexts. And while it is still a commonly-held belief that television viewing competes with reading for children’s attention, numerous studies—many of them cited in Susan Neumann’s 1995 book Literacy in the Television Age: The Myth of the TV Effect—have shown that television has exerted rather minimal effects on the time children actually spend perusing books. Following an extensive review of the research literature, Neumann concluded that “children were not reading very much before television and they are not reading very much today.” (An aside: Neumann also notes that while book readership among children remained stable even with the spread of television in the 1950s, comic book readership among children dropped significantly. Neumann suggests that television drew children away from comics during this period, but I think the widespread moral panic in the United States—instigated in part by Dr. Fredric Wertham’s now-discredited, fraudulent research—that led to the shuttering of popular horror, crime, romance, and humor comics publishers like EC Comics, Key Publications, Lev Gleason Publications, and Toby Press, had more to do with the decline in the youth’s comics readership in the 1950s than competition from television. Comics readership did recover somewhat in the 1960s once Marvel Comics and DC Comics restructured their publishing lines primarily around superheroes.)
As for hypertext, it has indeed become an indispensable part of the contemporary electronic text-based communications environment in the two decades since Coover’s essay was published, but what has come to be known as “hypertext fiction” remains a relatively small field and the linear narrative remains the dominant storytelling mode in popular literature, in both the print and the electronic arenas. In 2013, Steven Johnson, co-founder of the now-defunct Feed online magazine and one of hypertext fiction’s early proponents, called the prognostication that hypertext would radically change how we write and read fiction “a classic case of failed futurism.” (One can perhaps argue that the potential for branching, recursive, and interactive narratives Coover wrote about in his 1992 essay has found its truest expression not in the conceit of hypertext fiction, but in the modern video game.)
All that said, there are certainly all sorts of statistical indications that the business of printing books is trending down, even if history has proven time and again the enterprise’s resilience: Employment numbers in American book-related industries have been falling for years and as lead Nielsen BookScan analyst David Walter noted in a presentation at last year’s IfBookThen Conference, there is a marked and global decline in print book sales and an increasing number of consumers are migrating to digital alternatives like e-books.
Dour commercial outlook aside, there are still reasons for us to hold on to print, dog-eared and yellowing it may be (figuratively speaking). Recent research, most notably a 2013 study conducted by Anne Mangen and her colleagues at the University of Stavanger in Norway, points to evidence that reading print and reading on an electronic display are demonstrably different in terms of readers’ retention and comprehension of the material. In Mangen’s study, readers consistently scored better when tested on material they read in print as opposed to material they read off a desktop computer screen. (For those who don’t feel inclined to read the full-text of Mangen’s study, Ferris Jabr does an excellent job of explaining the background and implications of Mangen’s findings in a 2013 Scientific American article.)
In a second, more recent study, Mangen gave two groups of readers the same short story, with one group reading the story in print and the other reading the story on a Kindle e-book reader. Those in the print group scored the short story higher on measures of immersion, empathy, and narrative coherence while also performing better in a task where they were asked to reconstruct the chronology of the story they had just read. In other words, the print group enjoyed reading the story more than the Kindle group, and they also had a better grasp of the story’s plot.
Mangen, et al suggest that these results can be explained by the fact that the paper of print media provides spatiotemporal markers and haptic/tactile cues that aid in the retention and comprehension of the material being read, and that these markers and cues aren’t available (or don’t exert the same effects) when scrolling through and zoomng in on pages on a digital reading device. This isn’t so far-fetched an idea: Anyone who’s ever had to take a test in the era before e-books has probably had the experience of visualizing a textbook page and even mentally recreating the sensation of leafing through a textbook while attempting to recall a passage necessary to answer a particularly difficult exam question. Mangen also speculates that reading on backlit LCD screens such as those found on computers, tablets, and smartphones is more fatiguing for the reader, and this induced eyestrain (what ophthalmologists call computer vision syndrome) consequently interferes with the comprehension of the material.
Mangen’s findings and conclusions paint the picture of physical sensation playing a substantial role in the tasks of reading comprehension and recall. The new, post-digital value of print, then, may lie in the realization that the reading experience is significantly enriched by tactile feedback and optimal environmental viewing conditions, perhaps in combination with some sort of previously unelucidated procedural memory mechanism. Digital formats may already have superseded paper as the preferred cheap, disposable, everyday carriers of static text and imagery in many settings, but print offers very real advantages over digital delivery when it comes to material readers may want to meaningfully contemplate, long after being read.
Recent hardcover release recommendations
Just as the invention of movable type—in Marshall McLuhan’s words—“scrapped manuscript culture and elevated it, as it were, to a kind of art form,” so it might be the case that publishers’ continuing adoption and integration of digital publishing and distribution may make print books a more prestigious concern in the future, albeit one limited to specialty markets. It may sound terribly old-fashioned (and even elitist and technophobic, in some respects) to tie a book’s value to its physical substrate, but I can’t deny that for the bibliophile in me, there’s a luxurious—deliciously sensuous and decadent, even—appeal to reading, say, a comics collection printed on high-quality paper, stitched in the spine, bound between rigid covers.
Not every comic deserves the hardcover collection treatment, of course. Heck, I think most comics are throwaway entertainment, and I don’t mean that in an especially disparaging way—I consider the bulk of popular entertainment, whether comics, genre fiction, pop music, film, or television, to be harmless, disposable fluff, the stuff we use to take the edge off at the end of the day, to be largely forgotten after a while. That’s not a bad thing in and of itself. There are comics, though, that are worth keeping around in print to be savored again and again, and what better way to ensure that they’ll be in a readable condition years from now than getting them in a sturdy (preferably oversized) hardcover format. Below is a small lineup of notable hardcover comics collections recently published by our friends at Dark Horse Books, Image Comics, BOOM! Studios, and Oni Press. Call it a holiday shopping suggestion list if you like.
Action Philosophers!: The Tenth Anniversary Ubëredition (314 pages, $29.99, published by Dark Horse Books): As those who read last week’s column know, I have a bit of a history with philosophy-themed comics, so it shouldn’t be a surprise for anyone to learn that I’m a big fan of Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey’s Action Philosophers!. The Tenth Anniversary Ubëredition collects all nine issues of the comic originally self-published by Van Lente and Dunlavey under their Evil Twin Comics imprint from 2005 to 2007 along with a bunch of bonus features, including material not previously available in earlier trade paperback collections. Hilarious and quite informative, I would actually recommend Action Philosophers! as supplemental reading for students struggling with their Introduction to Philosophy texts as well as anyone who just wants to enjoy the process of learning the basics of the major philosophical movements from antiquity to the modern era.
Wasteland: The Apocalyptic Edition, Vol. 4 (352 pages, $39.99, published by Oni Press): Antony Johnston and Christopher Mitten’s post-apocalyptic epic is a personal favorite of mine—Johnston is a master of world-building and mythmaking and the stylized black & white comics art of Mitten and fellow artists Justin Greenwood and Russel Roehling is stunning. Fans looking to upgrade from the single issues should go for the hardcover Apocalyptic Editions over the trade paperbacks if they can, as the books feature extra content not found anywhere else. This latest hardcover collects issues #40–52 of the soon-to-end series and includes a new illustrated interlude with art by Mitten and Omar Olivera.
Lazarus: Book One (245 pages, 34.99, published by Image Comics): Click here to read my recent retrospective on Greg Rucka and Michael Lark’s Lazarus, one of the best speculative fiction comics being published today.
The Collector (252 pages, $29.99, published by BOOM! Studios’ Archaia imprint): Click here to read my review of the late Sergio Toppi’s beautifully illustrated historical fantasy-horror masterpiece.
The Guns of Shadow Valley (240 pages, $24.99, Dark Horse Books): Click here to read my review of Dave Wachter and James Andrew Clark’s excellent Weird West-genre tale.
Blue Estate: The Graphic Novel (288 pages, $29.99, published by Image Comics): A rollicking heist-themed action-comedy in the tradition Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, the real draw of this project spearheaded by Viktor Kalvachev and Kosta Yanev is its fun “art jam” conceit: The book is illustrated by a rotating crew of outstanding and distinct visual stylists that includes Kalvachev, Toby Cypress, Dave Johnson, Nathan Fox, Andrew Robinson, Andy Kuhn, Paul Maybury, Marley Zarcone, Tomm Coker, Robert Valley, and Peter Nguyen.
The Sixth Gun: Gunslinger Edition, Vol. 1 (356 pages, $100.00, published by Oni Press): Limited to a print-run of just 1,000 copies, this deluxe collection of the first 11 issues of the popular Weird West-genre saga is one for the serious Sixth Gun fan. The premium price gets the buyer an oversized hardcover (with dust jacket) in a “coffin box” with a magnetic clasp, as well as an individually numbered tip-in sheet signed by writer Cullen Bunn, illustrator Brian Hurtt, and colorist Brian Crabtree and three limited edition art prints.