21st Century Defense of the Paper Book / by Erin Wade

This past Friday evening my 14-year old and I had an extended conversation about books and technology. This is a recurring discussion, and it might not go quite the way you would think:

LB is a defender of the paper book.

Now, to be clear, LB isn't a Luddite. My offspring navigates electronic devices as if born to them (which is pretty close to the truth, as far as that goes). But in this area our opinions differ significantly.

To my mind, when someone says "I prefer the feel and the smell of a paper book, I just like to hold a book in my hand" what I hear is akin to a carriage driver in 1915 making the same statements about his horse in comparison to the automobile. Well, most of the same statements anyway.

The juxtaposition of our roles always amuses me when this comes up. It seems pleasantly odd to me that the 40-something Gen X-er is defending the advance of technology, while the 21st century teen is staunchly insisting upon continued use of a comparatively ancient format.

This particular conversation took a slightly different direction than the usual, however. Typically it's relatively brief - we each take a stand on our relative positions, agree that the other is clearly wrong, and move on from there. This evening we delved into particulars.

LB had a new avenue to consider about the e-reading experience. A frequently cited benefit of the electronic book is the ability to have many titles at hand at any given time. However, LB notes that, when reading fiction, one is typically interested only in the book being read at that time. Having a dozen options at the fingertips isn't really all that beneficial under these circumstances. And if one is only interested in the book currently underway, it really isn't that inconvenient to carry that particular book about.

Ceding this point for the moment, we turned to other types of books - reference materials, textbooks, comics. Having, historically, to carry each of these materials in large numbers - the textbooks from class to class in a backpack, the reference books from one work site to another, also in a backpack, and the comic books well... because I wanted to, okay?!? - we agreed that each of these is better in an electronic format.

The text books and reference materials are better because they are a pain in the ass to carry about. Comics are better both because they are also a pain to carry about in sufficient volume to fill one's time adequately - I can remember taking stacks of comics on family trips as a teenager about the same age as LB, and finding the number needed to sufficiently ensure limited family interaction (it's possible that I was a bit of an ass as a teenager) a little overwhelming - but they are also just better overall. Visually they are more attractive, the artwork rendered in a level of detail that the budget-conscious printing processes of the past would never have allowed. What's more the iPad Pro has a slightly larger display than the standard comic book size, and the ability to zoom allows for a much more immersive experience than paper can offer.

LB also notes that the physical book typically presents cover art, and that one develops a relationship with that book based upon that art. When one is looking to interact with the book, it's that physical appearance that one is looking for, that reassures one that they are about to re-enter the world of the book, of that particular story. In some cases, particularly in fantasy novels, there are other visuals like world maps that add to the experience. It isn't the case that these options cannot be offered - as E.O. Wilson demonstrated a couple of years ago , an electronic book can offer an extensive multimedia experience - but they are often not currently. The typical electronic book offering is simply screen after screen of text.

The paper book - an ancient item defended by a 21st century teen.

In the end, of course, no one is going to take your paperback away from you at any point in the near future. While some physical book stores may be struggling, the physical book is still readily available for the time being.

For the time being...

But it is clear that the physical medium it offers continues to have defenders, and they aren't all that old, grizzled carriage driver.