Books vs. Articles: What's Best for Learning?

What’s a better source of knowledge? A book or an article? We’re talking physical book vs digital article here.

An article gives readers an injection of thought-provoking, potentially worldview-altering/confirming serum (if they’re reading the right articles) and maybe a lesson they can absorb and apply to their lives then and there. But how do they keep track of it? What binds in memory the many disparate topics on articles one might read throughout the day?

Many articles (non-peer-reviewed, standard blog posts, quora answers, medium posts) fall down in usefulness for things like research papers, theses, or whitepapers.

A book anchors the reader in time. Generally a reader won’t consume the entire book in a sitting. And they will be taking notes and reviewing them. This intermingles with other activities over the days and weeks the reader spends with the book. Associative memory kicks in, and the recall is slightly higher. An article is there and gone, unless the reader spends copious amounts of time organizing bookmarks and making associations (I don’t, it’s scroll, clap, and gone).

A book establishes authority (depending on the publishing path it took, obviously self-published books fall in the same category as standard web articles).

A book’s social approval is easier to determine. Platforms like goodreads and amazon have amassed a wealth of ratings and reviews. How do you consistently measure articles on pocket vs google search vs medium? Recommendations by trusted sources are one way. Reading ‘top articles’ is another. Exploring on ones own and finding useful sources is probably the best route for interest retention, but how much of that is affected by our biases? Are we actually growing or just satisfying our need to be right/affirmed?

Books also engage the reader through multiple senses that articles cannot. Biased opinion: two of the best smells in the world are old books and new books. This triggers all the previous positive experiences with books and centers the focus: hey brain, this is what we’re doing now, so pay attention. The tactile feel of a book can accomplish the same (though some of the older books I have feel a bit gross, and I feel like if I read them in bed I’m going to end up with book-sand in my eyes.) Turning a page also gives you time to reflect in what you just read. You don’t get any of that with an article. It has the same sensory impact as Candy Crush.

It’s a lot harder to invoke an article during a conversation. Communication is possible through the use of symbols. During conversation, we borrow from the other person’s knowledge and experience and understanding to build our message. One example is high school. Everyone’s experience is different, but it encapsulates a certain collection of more generalized experiences: discovering ourselves, acne, dating, etc. Invoking the term kicks off a whirlwind of memories, some good, some bad. Since a book is such a time commitment, usually read intentionally over several sittings, it sticks better, and can then be used as a symbol for the concepts it represents. It’s more likely to (unintentionally) have had the shared experience of reading the same book than the same article.

In both cases, reading gives us a glimpse into the writer’s mind. It’s a filtered version; it’s been edited for maximum impact/alignment with the target core message (best case) or to manipulate the reader into some mindframe/action (worst case), but it allows us to connect with them on some level. This tends to be truer of articles than books. They’re more raw/less regulated in general, unless the book is an autobiography/memoir.

Anyway. Which is better? Who knows. Maybe they’re equally important. Articles are the breadth, books are the depth. Articles raise our general awarenesses and point us to topics that are interesting/worth diving into. Books make it possible to dive deep. Without either, the world would be a darker place.