This past summer, I lugged across the Atlantic a big, heavy suitcase filled with nothing but books (here’s a photo of it). Several puzzled readers justifiably asked me why I hadn’t invested in a Kindle.
In every other aspect of my life, I’m a technophile, the prototypical early adopter. I have an iPad with a Kindle app on it, but I still prefer my books in print.
For me, this isn’t just a matter of nostalgia or personal taste (though that’s certainly part of it). There are at least three reasons why old-fashioned print books trump their digital counterparts.
About a year ago, I noticed that I suffered amnesia after reading e-books. The content of an e-book—unlike a print book—would leave my mind as quickly as it entered. This initially struck me as counterintuitive: After all, the content of e-books and print books is exactly the same.
But the experience, it later occurred to me, is very different. Every book looks the same on an e-reader. It’s the same white background and the same font size and color. It’s like staying at the Westin—the rooms are the same whether you’re in Cabo or Kansas City. E-books, like cookie-cutter hotel rooms, start blending into each other.
When I sit down with a print book, I sink into a different kind of experience. Print books all look and feel different. The tactile differences help my mind separate one book from the other. I have a better sense of progress. I can make connections that I otherwise miss.
Each physical book also comes with its own story—the story of the bookstore where I bought the book, the story of the wine stain on page 33, and the story of the notes I scribbled on the margins while carrying on an imaginary conversation. These stories add a melody to the words, engaging senses that otherwise remain dormant while reading an ebook.
Research supports these intuitions. One study of tenth graders found that “students who read texts in print scored significantly better on the reading comprehension test than students who read the texts digitally.”
This difference might also be related to our online reading habits. In the digital world, we don’t read like we used to. We drag our vision across the page. We scroll and skim. I’ve noticed that these disjointed online reading habits carry over to all digital devices, including the books I read on Kindle. As a result, my attention fractures.
Once I’ve read a book on Kindle, it’s off my Kindle. It disappears into the ether. But my physical books go back on the bookshelf where they stare at me for years. Passing by them, I’m reminded of the lessons learned. Some beckon to me for a second reading.
For a long time, I refused to re-read books—I viewed it as a waste of time. After all, I read it once and got what I could out of it. There are too many good books to read, and too little time.
Except I’m not the same person I was a decade ago. I’ve changed—more than I think I have. Every time I return to a book, it’s a new person reading it. I pick up on subtleties that I missed the first time around. New ideas become relevant because of where I’m in life now.
All great books, as Derek Thompson writes, “seem to immerse me in another life, but ultimately they immerse me in me; I am looking through the window into another person’s home, but it is my face that I see in the reflection.” Just as the face that appears in that reflection changes over time, so does what you get from reading the book.
This is particularly true for books we read at a young age—books that were thrust into our hands by authority figures back when we were busy staging teenage rebellions. I suggest beginning there and re-reading some of the books that you were forced to read in high school. You’ll discover a very different book than the one you remember.
For example, I recently re-read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, which I had first read in high school. I remembered the book to be about a dystopian society where a totalitarian government burns books. Except that it’s not. There’s another story line where the real culprit isn’t the government. In the book, it’s the tribes–the dog-lovers, the cat-lovers, the leftists, the rightists, the Catholics, the Zen Buddhists–who pour the kerosene, light the fuse, and push their government to do the same. The book is a cautionary tale for today’s society where dissent is policed by our tribes and unorthodox views are rejected as controversial.
In a podcast interview, the author Dan Pink recounts a similar experience in college when his professor assigned the class to read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. When students protested that they already read this book in high school, the professor replied: “You may have read the book in high school, but you have not read the book.”
For me, picking up a physical book erects a psychological separation from the digital world. Reading a book on an e-reader makes it all too tempting to be swayed by distractions screaming their 100 decibel sirens for attention.
E-books, particularly when I read them at night, act as a force amplifier and send my brain into overdrive, just when it should be shutting down.
Print books are my refuge. They open the world by shutting out everything else.
[Inspiration: Michael Harris, I Have Forgotten How to Read].