Wednesday, May 27, 2015

In Praise of Paper Books

I love books.  Not audio books.  Not e-books.  Physical, paper books.

Some of my favorites
I'm not a Luddite.  I have a blog (you're reading it!).  I check my digital devices dozens of times a day.  I don't have the general fear of technology that fuels so many science fiction stories (see for instance my review of Ex Machina).

I may not be a Luddite, but I've also never been one to embrace technology quickly or blindly.  I didn't get a cell phone until 2005, and I didn't get a smart phone until 2012.  Since I'm neither a computer nor a child, I harbor a curmudgeonly dislike of hash tags, text speak, and emojis.  I prefer to get directions off a map before I leave rather than using GPS audio directions.  Most tragically for my earning potential as a nerd, I've never had any interest in computer programming.

The increasing availability of books in non-paper formats has arisen in the context of my mixed feelings about technology.  Note that I'm NOT telling other people how to read.  If audio books or e-books help you to enjoy books, then I am in full support of reading in whatever manner you choose.  Books are awesome.  Reading is a huge part of my career as well as my favorite hobby.  But for me, paper books are superior.

How do I praise paper books?  Let me count some of the ways.

1.  The aesthetic experience.

Holding a stack of bound paper in your hands is a fundamentally different aesthetic experience than listening to an audio book or reading on a digital device (I shudder to contemplate reading a book on a phone).  I have used books, like my copy of Russell's Mysticism and Logic, published 70 years ago that smell of pipe tobacco and the sweet must of finely aged books (see this article on the science of the smell of old books).  New books smell of pulp and ink with a hint of glue - that "new book smell" if you will.  The lightness of a short book signals to your hands that your experience will be short and sweet or mercifully short depending on the book.  The heft of a big book tells you to settle in for a longer journey.  While one shouldn't judge a book by its cover, the experience of seeing a book design in paper is unique.  For instance, the American Orbit editions of Iain M. Banks's books are just so cool looking, and this experience doesn't transfer to an e-reader screen.  My friend, author Adam J. Nicolai, published initially in e-book form, but he also made some paper books available for bibliophiles like me (Check out Adam's website!  His stuff is really good).
Iain M. Banks, Adam J. Nicolai, George R. R. Martin, and more

2. Paper books take up space.  And that's a good thing.

E-reader fans always say, "I love that I don't have to carry books around and that they don't take up space on my shelves!  Why do you keep getting those old dusty things?"  After I extoll the virtues of the aesthetic experience of the books as individual items (#1 above), I point out that a room with books is a room worth being in.  A home without books is not a home to me.  If you invite me to your house, I will linger near your bookshelves (hopefully not in a creepy way).  Would anyone take me seriously as a humanities professor without my academic books lining the walls of my office?

My office
I've always loved libraries.  I realize that libraries have always been more about community and information resources than just a place to store books, which is increasingly the case these days, but libraries are my favorite places.  There's something about being surrounded by thousands of books that gives me the cozy sense that all is right with the universe.  Plus, you can borrow the books for free, which combines my love of books with my love of getting free stuff!  Libraries, especially public libraries, exemplify the value of sharing in a society that's increasingly turning to narrow-minded selfishness.

Library and non-library books
I love carrying books around.  You look smarter with a book in your hand.  Sure, books can be heavy.  They can be a hassle to pack and move.  They collect dust.  But they are some of the few physical objects worth the trouble.  I can sell all my furniture and clothes.  I don't care about my car.  Such things can be replaced.  But books, especially rare used books or books I've owned for a long time, have irreplaceable sentimental value.  I often remember where and when I acquired a book, what was going on in my life when I read it, and so forth.  For instance, I received my copies of The Lord of the Rings books for Christmas when I was twelve and have read them several times (often in preparation for the Peter Jackson movie versions).  I saved my copy of Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed published in the 70's from a library discard shelf circa 2004.  My copy of Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness came from the Roswell Public Library book sale at the UFO Festival (you can see all of these above in the first picture on this post).  My attachment to books is one of my main obstacles to enlightenment (if the Buddhists are right, but then I read that in a book somewhere...).  None of this has stopped me from selling books, especially before a move, but I always feel bad about it until I remember I'm supporting used book sellers and making the books available to others (so really I'm a biblio-bodhisattva!).

3. Paper books are better for concentration, comprehension, and learning.

Numerous studies have suggested that paper books are better for comprehension and learning (see this article from Scientific American for discussion of some examples).  A lot of this probably has to do with tactile and visual cues.  I often remember an important passage based on how far into the book I was, whether it was on the left or right page, and where on the page I read it.

If I want to understand difficult material, like philosophy, I read with a pen to underline, mark important passages, and to write notes that form a dialogue with the text.  Yes, you can annotate on some e-readers, but it's not the same.  If you're reading on a device with internet access, forget anything like immersive concentration: I wonder if I got an email...?  How about Facebook... Did I pay those bills...?  These questions, which are just a click away from answering, detract from the immersion into stories and ideas that makes reading books so rewarding in the first place.  Maybe I'm old fashioned, but I think digital multi-tasking is overrated and, as some scientists claim, it's actually inefficient.

4.  Paper books last, and they always work.

There are books that are hundreds of years old, some of which are copies of books that are thousands of years old.  You can still read them today.  A paper book (or a papyrus or palm leaf manuscript) is a piece of history in your hands, whether it's a 300 year old book in a library's special collections or a mass market paperback published the year you were born that you found in a used book store with a cat.  Will anyone be able to read your .pdf of The Da Vinci Code in 100 years?  50 years?  Of course, nobody will want to read Dan Brown in the future (I hope).

No Kindles here (Twilight Zone, "Time Enough at Last")
The point is: paper books work no matter whether you have the right operating system, whether Amazon revokes your license, whether you have electricity, whether you can afford a digital device, etc.  You just need a person literate in the language in which the book is written and some light.  This would be the case even after some cataclysmic event, like whatever happened before the Mad Max movies (the Wives had books in Mad Max: Fury Road) or in my second favorite Twilight Zone episode, "Time Enough At Last."  Books like A Canticle For Leibowitz and Fahrenheit 451 show us that how important books would be in a dystopia.

Call it pointless nostalgia, bibliophilia, or even bibliomania if you will, but I sincerely hope that paper books will be around in the future.  Star Trek: The Next Generation may have imagined the iPad, but remember that Jean-Luc Picard still reads paper books.  If Captain Picard can read paper books in the 24th century, I hope that a few of us can persist in reading them in the 21st.

Captain Picard on vacation


  1. yes, yes and yes! I do use my e-reading app on my tablet but I'll never turn completely away from physical books!

    1. Thanks! I suspect that e-books may be like online classes in that they are occasionally convenient, but most people don't actually want them to entirely replace the original low-tech option. Even some of my digital native millennial students prefer physical, paper books.

  2. You're welcome for telling you to buy those bags of used books at the Roswell used book sale!

  3. I have been on the fence on this matter. As much as I want to prefer ebooks, paper books are just better for many of the reasons you listed. Except, I hate moving them on moving day, or having the unread ones stare at me from my shelves. Kinda makes me feel guilty for not reading them. Conversely, the best loved books make for friendly reminders on my shelf. But aside from that, the whole experience of paper, when you want to absorb a challenging or detailed topic, is better. Also, yeah, thrift stores, libraries, used book stores, amaZon used books,, yardsales, are all good places to find cheap books. It's like finding a new treasure :) However, I LOVE the instant gratification of an ebook when I want to immediately read something I can't get locally. Great post, Ethan!

    1. Thanks! E-books definitely have advantages, but I'll keep moving all those boxes of books around until I learn better.