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Books vs. e-books: The science behind the best way to read

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While browsing the bookstore to buy a gift for that special someone (or yourself), you may be faced with a tough decision: e-books or the old-fashioned kind? Each one has its pros and cons, and choosing the best option depends on a number of factors.

Some of the practical advantages of going digital are obvious: A portable little e-reader can carry an entire library wherever you go, which is great for travelers or those who always want a choice of reading material.

On the other hand, research has been stacking up to show that reading on paper has a number of benefits, too. Plus, there's the nostalgia factor.

"First and foremost, consider the person and their lifelong preferences," Dr. Matthew H. Schneps, director of the Laboratory for Visual Learning, a collaboration between the University of Massachusetts Boston and MIT, told CBS News in an email. "Some people absolutely love the look, smell, and feel of the classical book held in the hand, and such people may not want to give up the sensory experience of reading from a paper book. If the recipient of your gift is someone who is adventurous when it comes to gadgets, but otherwise doesn't read much using traditional books, giving the gift of an e-reader can be a life-changing experience for them."

Here's a look at some of the science to consider before you spring for a Kindle, a Nook or a stack of new hardcovers.

Young, reluctant readers prefer e-readers

A 2014 study published in the journal Library & Information Science Research found that out of 143 10th grade students, most preferred e-readers. Boys and those who did not care much for reading also shared a strong preference for e-readers.

"An e-reader has more in common with the electronic devices that young people use all the time, like smartphones or iPads, than a paper book, when it comes to turning of pages, the possibilities of adjusting font size, etc.," lead author of the study, Åse Kristine Tveit, told CBS News in an email.

Reading on paper may boost retention

Several small studies suggest that reading on paper instead of an electronic screen is better for memory retention and focus. The Guardian reported on an experiment from Norway where people were given a short story to read either on a Kindle or in a paperback book; when they were quizzed later, those who read the paperback were more likely to remember plot points in the right order.

"When you read on paper you can sense with your fingers a pile of pages on the left growing, and shrinking on the right," the lead researcher, Anne Mangen, of Norway's Stavanger University, told the Guardian. "You have the tactile sense of progress ... Perhaps this somehow aids the reader, providing more fixity and solidity to the reader's sense of unfolding and progress of the text, and hence the story."

Paper suits readers with sleep problems and eye strain

High levels of screen luminance from an electronic device can contribute to visual fatigue, a condition marked by tired, itching, burning eyes.

There are also potential considerations for those reading e-books on light-emitting e-readers at night (although a number of e-readers do not use light-emitting screens), Dr. Margaret K. Merga, a reading and education specialist in Australia, told CBS News in an email. "Artificial light exposure from light-emitting e-readers may interfere with users' ability to sleep, ultimately leading to adverse impacts on health."

A 2014 study published in the journal PNAS found that reading an e-book before bedtime decreased the production of melatonin, a hormone that preps the body for sleep. E-books also impaired alertness the following day.

E-books help the visually impaired

Individuals with poor eyesight or reading disorders like dyslexia can benefit more from e-books because they provide a range of options for changing the text size and spacing of lines. A 2013 study in the journal PLOS One observed reading comprehension and speed in 103 high school students with dyslexia. The study found that people with dyslexia read more effectively, and with greater ease, when using the e-reader compared with reading on paper.

Schneps, who was the lead author on the paper, said, "What made the difference was the ability of the device to display lines of text that were extremely short (about two or three words per line), as well as its ability to space out the text. When these people read using the modified formatting, their reading instantly improved."

His team has a website where people can preview the effects of some of these features before making a purchase. Try out the interactive tips at readeasy.labvislearn.org.

A fondness for books

Many book-lovers still prefer the traditional option and value the tactile sensation of a bound paper book. "Paper books are, as a rule, very well designed, they look and smell good, and they carry with them a more human touch," Tveit said.

In Merga's experience with students in Australia, avid readers also tend to prefer reading on paper. While conducting the West Australian Study in Adolescent Book Reading (WASABR), Merga and colleagues found that students preferred reading paper books. "One student described this attitude as a preference to 'own something (rather) than just use it,'" Merga said.