The enduring power of real books

Ever since the first e-reader was developed people have been preicting the demise of the paper-format. Hardbacks would be the first to disappear and the paperback would follow. I wrote an article for a publishing magazine a decade ago about e-readers and e-ink and the tone was clear, these technologies were a genuine threat to the existence of the book as we knew it.

While the internet in general (and Amazon in particular) has proved incredibly disruptive to the publishing industry, most notably to bookstores it seems after ten years what consumers want is both forms. 

The convenience of the e-book for travellers is hard to beat, yet the pleasure of browsing bookshops like these can’t be equalled. There is no business in the curation of digital books for private collection – they will not get more expensive with age – and there will be no demand for a first edition download of any e-book.

Not so real books which are collectors items because they are physical, tangible, real and because sometimes they are beautiful works of craftmanship and artistry. As Kinsey Marable, a curator for private collections, says:

Books make a room. They warm it, make it liveable, comfortable and real.

This fusing of means and technologies is also seen in the state of the modern library. While small local libraries initially felt the strain of budget cuts and declining use, similar to independent bookstores, larger central libraries began to flourish and grow in importance.

New libraries make a statement about the culture and education of a place and become destinations in their own right. They serve students, residents, visitors and have become cultural centres and repositories. The internet disrupted their cozy and somewhat smug world and they’ve been the better for fighting back.

Neil Gaiman is right when he asserts that,

If you do not value libraries then you do not value information or culture or wisdom. You are silencing the voices of the past and you are damaging the future.

There was a time too when we thought that not only would the book vanish from the world but reading would disappear along with it. The internet again being the villain of the piece. Yet we have discovered there is something about reading and reading books that we dare not lose, or will regret if we do. The long slow sustained pleasure of being lost in another world or challenged, without distraction, of an argument or theory is it seems profoundly good for our brains as well as our souls.

Reading, it seems, can make you happier. It brings tangible benefits to your pysche.

Reading has been shown to put our brains into a pleasurable trance-like state, similar to meditation, and it brings the same health benefits of deep relaxation and inner calm. Regular readers sleep better, have lower stress levels, higher self-esteem, and lower rates of depression than non-readers.

Yet reading faces stiff competition for our time and energy, it often loses out to shallower, more time-consuming but diverting choices. As Andrew Haslam says while offering some good advice on how to read more,

The book has a hard time competing with the screen (TV, internet, smart phone) because it isn’t designed to give instant gratification. If you’re not reading there’s a strong likelihood you’re opting for the easy, mind-numbing options. So, set yourself some limits for TV. Delete the Facebook app off your phone. Put down the rubbish paper on your commute and bring a book instead (at least for one direction of the journey). Do whatever it takes not to waste your life on these things.

Reading is a skill we can get better at, but we won’t get better at it while doing other things (see Erik Raymond’s post on reading more). It is also a generous skill, it rewards amply those who invest the time and energy to it. So while I’ll take my Kindle with me on a business trip, my shelves will always groan under the weight of too many books.

*For more resources on reading, try reading, writing & the art of tsundoku


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