It’s a sunny day. A gentle summer breeze rustles through the leaves hanging high and green on the tall trees. The pleasant sound of happy families drifts through the park. You’re sitting back against a tree, sipping iced coffee, enjoying the stillness, without a care in the world. In that shaded, restful state, you’re holding a book, one you’ve read a dozen times.
That book is perfectly balanced in your hand, the spine flexible from years of use. The pages are well-worn, some ear-marked and underlined where you once grew to love each quotable sentence. The paper fiber and ink smell just as all good books do. The book is familiar. It’s been faithfully sitting on your shelf at home, carried on scores of flights, read on a handful of beaches, and it’s never let you down. That book, the bound ink and paper, means something to you. It’s your book, and it has been with you during the most important transitions of your life.
Sure, you can read your favorite book on an e-reader, IPad, Kindle, or anything else. It’s convenient because you already take your tablet everywhere you go. Plus, you can bring fifty books on a tablet without adding any extra weight to your carry-on luggage. Even highlighting and bookmarking works in e-readers. Many e-books are cheaper than their hardcover counterparts.
So did the e-book kill ink and paper? Is the traditional printed book dying or already dead?
Traditional printed books are here to stay, and here’s why:
1. Printed books have “thingyness” that digital products will never have.
I’ve never heard a person talk about how they love holding their one tablet, how it smells, or how it looks on the shelf next to other e-readers. People like physical items they can hold and touch and experience, not just harvesting the information from the pages.
2. We need to experience life off screen.
When was the last time you spent a whole day doing things that didn’t involve a digital screen? Eyes strain and heads ache because of intense staring at bright pixels for unceasing hours a day. More of our time should be spent off the computer and in the world, living beyond 3G coverage. We could use some more time in the analog world.
3. We must remember where we’ve come from.
Books are a return to earlier civilization. Since the advent of electricity, the human race has done more and more work with the extra “time” afforded by artificial light. After the sun went down, people used to go to wind down for the evening and sleep. There was no easy way to keep producing, and it was difficult enough to read books by candlelight. When we read real, ink and paper books, we’re reminded of the importance of rest and a balanced life. Books encourage us to slow down and realize we’re in a story much bigger than our own generation or culture.
4. No amount of technological advances will make it simpler to read a book.
The words can scroll across the screen, extra features can enhance the ability to post quotes on social media networks, and audiobooks can read the literature to us while we listen. But there’s nothing simpler and purer than sitting down to read a book with our own eyes, running our finger across each page. When one reads a printed book, there are no other distractions at the touch of our fingers.
5. Books can be shared.
You can’t lend an e-book to a friend for a long period of time or just give it to them once you’re done reading it. You probably won’t pass your e-books down to your children. But they’ll inherit your bookcase and all the volumes it held. Printed books are heavier, pricier, and less convenient, but they’ve got the ability to go beyond their original owner. Since ideas are meant to be shared, books should thus be sharable.
The German poet Heinrich Heine once said, “Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings.”
I don’t think modern societies are at the point of burning books (at least most cultures aren’t). But it’s interesting that Heine drew that connection between how societies treat books and how they treat people.
Books are powerful things, because words are powerful things. If we treat books like they’re just another piece of data to be processed in our digital lives, we lose a little bit of respect for the unique aesthetics and physicality books provide. These idea containers become more of a commodity and less of an art. And where we value the exchange of a product more than we value literature, we lose touch with something that makes us human: sharing ideas.
So go grab your favorite hardcover, spread a blanket in the shade, and celebrate part of our humanity by reading a book of ink and paper.