Print, Paper, Pen, Ink

The age-old question used to be “paper or plastic?” Now, in admittedly a different industry altogether, it’s “printed book or e-book?”

I have played devil’s advocate among my bookish friends arguing that it might not be the worst thing if books become primarily published in e-book format, due largely to the decrease of paper waste. And with less books being physically published, maybe those short print runs would be more prized and produced to much higher standards. Kind of like the resurgence of vinyl in the music industry. Who needs gazillions of sub-par pulpy paperback novels published every year?

The devil’s perspective or no, I’m not sure I’d ever seriously promote that view. Try as I might I just can’t focus properly when I read a book on a screen. Inevitably I read a lot online, but the sustained focus and concentration required to read something book-length on a screen is uncomfortable and difficult. Too many distractions, and so forth. So I stick with my old fuddy-duddy printed books.

Most of the arguments for printed books center around nostalgia, and unfortunately that isn’t really a very strong argument; nostalgia is too subjective. But comprehension, learning, memory and stress-level are all things that can be objectively measured. And increasingly, they are being measured in relation to reading, to writing, and taking notes. Are there solid, evidence-based cognitive arguments in favor of physical books? Indeed there are.

For me it all comes down to the physicality of the thing, the tactile, textured, non-distracting, beautifully single-function artifact. Reading a physical book is more immersive because of the limitations of the medium, because of the little bit of extra work it takes to turn the page, the little bit of extra muscle it takes to hold the book. If you spill coffee on a page, it’s likely that you’ll remember the content of that page better because you now have something to associate it with. If it starts raining and the pages get wet and wavy, there’s another associated memory. These associations enhance our experience, and our memory.

Maybe in the future we’ll have Matrix-like technology, where we can plug in, download stuff directly into our brains, and suddenly have read say, all of the books on Project Gutenberg, without going through the hassle of actually reading them. Ok: yes, I would totally do that, but the good ones I would read again physically so that I could take the time to make associations and find deeper meanings in the text that would not be possible during a mass data-dump. But that’s in the future, and is merely a hypothetical extreme example of where we might be headed. Not that I would be in the least surprised if it became possible within the next ten years.

Bonus articles:

Image: Anne Frank

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