Should we make e-books harder to read?

In 2010, I looked at a Princeton study that found using harder-to-read fonts actually improved memory retention. Recently, writer Alan Jacobs at The Atlantic has considered that same study (via the book Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman) in light of what it might mean for e-readers.

Jacobs writes that he prefers the slow, click-intensive method of annotating common to e-ink readers rather than the “easy” method with tablets, because he is better able to remember what he annotates through e-ink readers’ more difficult process.

E-books are in their infancy now: there’s little textual design to speak of, typography is often terrible, illustrations are limited, errors are shockingly frequent. They’ll get much better. But it would be cool if, when they improve, readers were given means of introducing a bit of cognitive friction when that would make the reading experience a stronger one. Sort of like cranking up the speed and increasing the incline on an elliptical trainer.

Most e-ink readers seem to be locked into one font, unlike tablet- or smartphone-based readers that usually offer plenty of font-changing options. But even on the readers that have the options, I’ll admit I’ve never really considered intentionally making books harder to read so I remember them better. And it should have crossed my mind when I wrote the post about the original study—or when I ran across the post from a neuroscience blogger who suggested that easy-to-read e-readers might interfere with remembering what we read.

Anyway, I still find it amazing to consider that there could actually be a useful purpose for Comic Sans.

4 Comments on Should we make e-books harder to read?

  1. I suspect the effect only applies if hard-to-read fonts are the exception. Put everything your read in those fonts, and you’ll be making your reading miserable for no benefit.

    A better option, assuming this effect is actually true, would be to take notes of what’ll be on the test and put that text in the dreadful font.

  2. No, I hate that idea! But I find that, weirdly, the fact that paper books tend to vary in appearance from each other jogs my memory. As publishers gain the ability to format their books with more design control, maybe that will help?

  3. “improved memory retention”

    Why is that good ?

  4. I know the article says “optional”, but just in case someone decides “difficult reading” would be Good For Everyone (TM), please note:

    NOT FOR PEOPLE WITH VISUAL DIFFICULTIES.

    I also have cognitive difficulties (it’s hard to understand or remember things), and find a smooth, easy-to-read font helps me with both.

    My visual and cognitive decline is due to a neurological disease (hfme.org), so I question the assumptions made in the original article.

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