In Defense of Books (The real, paper kind)

My name is Jessica, I’m 24 years old, and I hate e-readers.

But instead of busting into that can of worms, let’s ease it open slowly.

In a recent article, Notre Dame Professor Carol Phillips suggests that Millennials read for information, that they read with a purpose and are very good scanners. And while Millennials are known for their relatively short attention spans, Phillips suggests that “this is actually a functional adaptation to information-saturation.” We’re the social media generation, and if our attention is what you’re seeking, you’ve got to make sure your content is succinct and highly engaging.

And while this may be good news for marketers, as Phillips concludes, it certainly has a more negative impact on our ability to truly absorb information and our likelihood of actually picking up a book as technology continues to shorten our attention spans and distract us with a constant barrage of content.

In a recent Time article, author Jonathan Franzen defends books – novels, specifically -  by referencing philosopher Soren Kierkegaard‘s idea of busyness:

“[It's] that state of constant distraction that allows people to avoid difficult realities and maintain self-deceptions. With the help of cell phones, e-mail and hand-held games, it’s easier to stay busy, in the Kierkegaardian sense, than it’s ever been.

Reading, in its quietness and sustained concentration, is the opposite of busyness. ‘We are so distracted by and engulfed by the technologies we’ve created, and by the constant barrage of so-called information that comes our way, that more than ever to immerse yourself in an involving book seems socially useful,’ Franzen says. ‘The place of stillness that you have to go to to write, but also to read seriously, is the point where you can actually make responsible decisions, where you can actually engage productively with an otherwise scary and unmanageable world.’”

For bibliophiles, reading is an escape, a sanctuary, a solo experience. But more than that, as Franzen suggests, reading is an activity that should be accompanied by no unnecessary distractions.

And yet, in comes the e-reader – the Kindle, the Nook, the iPad – threatening to turn the precious bound book into just another piece of technology into which we can plug our over-stimulated brains, just another app to flaunt on our fancy devices, just another piece of content for us to scan as we browse the Internet and update Facebook and Twitter (capabilities that are possible on most e-readers).

But sentimentality and biased opinions aside, there may be an even bigger problem lying ahead.

The fact of the matter is, technology is highly influential, and as Wired journalist Jonah Lehrer points out, “sooner or later every medium starts to influence the message.” As e-reader technology advances, and screens become flawlessly clearer, it will essentially feel “easier” to read from an e-reader than from an actual book. In fact, many people are already acknowledging this. And while this may seem like a positive change, scientific research actually suggests otherwise. Neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene‘s research shows that a reading pathway known as the dorsal stream is activated when we are forced to consciously pay attention to what we are reading, making the act of reading less automatic and more engaging, more likely to be retained. Reading is a different kind of experience than, say, enjoying the screen quality of an HD television. It shouldn’t be “easy” and it shouldn’t be automatic. And as technology makes reading easier,  it’s difficult not to wonder if this will also effect our capacity and desire to read challenging books.

In addition to Dehaene’s research, author Nicolas Carr writes that many studies indicate that reading on a screen yields lower comprehension than reading from a printed page. He suggests that while our distraction and capacity for multi-tasking increases, we actually get less creative in our thinking.

And while these potential consequences of turning reading a book into just another technological experience can undoubtedly yield unfavorable results in regard to our intelligence, our distractedness, and our ability to retain information, there are other more sentimental reasons I’m not trading in my library card for a Kindle.

I enjoy the tactile experience of reading. I love the way a book feels. The way it smells, the way the pages turn. Also, books themselves can be a stimulus for social engagement, such as when a fellow subway passenger notices what I’m reading and strikes up a conversation. And of course, much like Ron Burgundy, I have many [leather-bound] books [and my house smells of rich mahogany]. Okay. Maybe just the part about the books. I treasure my bookshelf, and hope to one day have an entire room dedicated to books. A personal library is something to build and build upon over a lifetime.

Though my bibliophile heart flutters when I come across research that shows that people are more likely to read more and buy more books when they own an e-reader, I can’t help but wonder when the novelty will wear off and if those people will revert back to the amount they read before their e-reader.

Photo by gadl

And unlike movies, TV, and music, whose vessels of experience have been updated and adapted as technology improves, books have been part of human culture, in the same form, for thousands of years. Lehrer writes that with digital books, he fears “we will trade understanding for perception.” And what a sad fate that would be for our already impatient and over-saturated brains.

I know I’m not alone on my strong opinions about e-readers. There must be plenty of you out there who vehemently agree or disagree with me. So let’s hear it! What do you think?

Jessica Weil Social Media Analyst at advertising agency in Cambridge, MA. Loves: sharks, philosophy, horror movies. Fascinated by the quirky stuff that makes life so interesting.

View all posts by Jessica Weil

12 Responses to “In Defense of Books (The real, paper kind)”

  1. Tom Miesen

    For recreational reading? Agree 100%. It’s a treat to be away from my laptop and phone, and reading is a welcome escape from the digital world.

    For education, e-readers would provide tremendous value. Imagine the interactive capabilities of an e-reader in the classroom: the textbooks would really come alive. Also, kids would have less weight to carry and they would get an early lesson in how to interact with the digital environment.

    Logistically, I can understand how this is very far into the future (cost is too high, teachers are set in their old ways, etc), but I think it’s definitely something to look into.

  2. Jessica

    Tom –

    That’s a great point, and If I were writing a much longer article, I would have totally brought that up for all the reasons you’ve provided. Thanks for pointing it out. I do, however, worry that kids would get too distracted by an e-reader and that they might not retain as much information, as suggested by the research cited in this article. But in a classroom setting, the pros might indeed outweigh the cons.

  3. Michael

    Great piece! I am an avid reader, generally with multiple books going at the same time (which, by the way, can make finding my alarm clock on my nightstand difficult). I personally don’t own an E-Book yet, however, I can imagine a time when I do. I like your sentiment, however the problem I have is that it sounds very much like arguments from the past: hand-made vs. computer, vinyl vs. CD, digital vs. film, etc. These generally rely on ‘sentimental’ reasoning versus a rational argument. It would be one thing if there where a study showing that in fact an electronic medium can unequivocally not deliver the same content and results as paper, but I doubt that will happen. I think paper books will become a niche business in the not so distant future, and I think cost is the most obvious reason why. I don’t fear this, because in my mind, the most truly valuable aspect of any book is the writing and the places great writing can take you. I think that will remain, whether books are distributed electronically or in paper form. Of course, that doesn’t mean I will be throwing out my books anytime soon.

    • Jessica

      Michael –

      Thanks so much for your well thought out comment! I’ll be the first to admit that my personal reasons for opposing e-readers are most certainly sentimental, but I did cite some research about the effects of reading on a screen, and the (de-)activation of the dorsal stream to try to keep my article grounded in more rational territory. I still think that there is an inherent difference between books and other forms of “entertainment” such as television, movies and music. I’m absolutely with you in agreeing that the most valuable aspect of the book is the writing, but I do fear, as Jonah Lehrer pointed out, that the medium may start to influence the message and take away from the content.

  4. Abby

    I was given the Nook for my birthday and I love it. The books are cheaper, easier to take with me when I travel (because I can take several at one time without all the weight of carrying separate books), and I don’t have to worry about where I am going to store all the books I accumulate. A device like the Nook doesn’t have a very good browser or games available, so the only thing I use it for is reading.

    I think the bigger issue is that we have a lot of different mediums that are competing for our attention and it is getting harder and harder to focus on one thing at a time. The issue is the same if you are reading a physical book but have your cell phone next to you alerting you every time you have Twitter/Facebook updates.

    • Jessica

      Abby –

      That’s a great point and I definitely agree that the issue of distraction can still be present even while reading a paper book. When I made that particular argument in the article, I was mostly thinking of the iPad which is (in my opinion) the most potentially distracting of all e-readers. My boyfriend has a Kindle, and loves it for the same reasons you listed. The way I look at it is, we’re constantly so immersed in technology that the paper book is a refreshing escape.

  5. Elin Stebbins Waldal


    Thank you for putting into words what I have felt since first learning about the numerous electronic options available for reading a book. Call me crazy, call me sentimental…but I just love the feel of a book. I don’t treat them in any reverent way either. They are often dog eared, coffee stained, and even once- (oops) water logged! Yes I am afraid years ago Memoirs of a Geisha took a dive into our pool when I sprung up and in after a then toddler in my life!

    My brother who travels shared with me the countless reasons why he, a former bound book lover, had converted. I listened and understood how not carrying numerous books while globe trotting would be appealing; after all one cannot always predict what they are going to be in the mood to read. But for me, whose primary “trotting” is within a 20 mile radius? I will remain with stacks of books by my bedside.

    I suppose my interest in helping the environment may at some point wear me down…but for now I remain attached to the entire experience; cracking open that book and feeling the page turn between my fingers…and if (or when) I do fall asleep I won’t be worried about breaking an electronic that surely will have run out of battery prior to it’s slip from my grip onto the floor.

    Thanks again for the post…it is a wonderful break from what usually slips before my eyes via Twitter!

    • Jessica

      Elin –

      Thank you so much for your nice comment! If loving the feel of a book is crazy, then I don’t want to be sane. I, too, see how e-readers can be useful for people who spend their lives traveling, but my lifestyle is such that I don’t mind carrying around a book with me on the train to work and back.

      In regards to the environmental argument, I’ll say this: I can’t imagine an e-reader being any better for the environment than a library book that gets passed around to hundreds of people.

      Thanks again for stopping by and joining the discussion.

  6. Julia Drewniak

    On my up and down Dc I’m surrounded by Kindles & iPads. I know for a fact that my Harry Potter hardback will provide me a solid defense if attacked as compared to my e-reader friends. Seriously, I grew up w/ real books and could never dre of giving them up. I’m sure handing your child an e-reader filled w/ your favorite childhood stories is just as touching as handing him/her your worn copies.

    I do

    • Jessica

      Thanks for your comment, Julia! Using books as weapons for self-defense is something I hadn’t considered – it definitely made me laugh. :)

  7. Pete Cutler

    This is a very well done post and an excellent choice of a topic. I found myself nodding my head in agreement as I read through it.

    I have just published a post on my own blog that discusses this very topic and I would invite you to visit and let me know what you think.

    With your permission, I would like to include you on my blog roll.

    Again, thank you for a fine read.

    • Jessica

      Pete – Thank you so much! I just read your post, and it seems like we have a lot in common regarding this topic. One thing that has surprised me is the generally positive response I’ve gotten to this post. Many people have mentioned that they agree completely, which I know is a great sign for people like you and me who truly value paper books.

      I’d love to be included on your blog roll. Thanks again for stopping by and commenting.


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