In praise of physical books

Power to the paper!

By Morf Morford, Tacoma Daily Index

I’m always amazed to see someone in public reading a book. I mean a real, dead-tree, physical book.

One of those paper creations without a screen, where the letters and illustrations stand still and nothing flickers or needs to be charged.

After staring at a screen, I find looking at a printed page an odd experience.

A book, for better or worse, is a working definition of analog – a pure linear, sequential, page by page experience.

And, either by habit or some unexpected convergence, our brains retain more from the printed page than we do from a pulsating screen.

Print readers also scored higher in other areas, such as empathy, immersion in the book, and understanding of the narrative.

Scientists believe this effect is related to the tactile sensation of holding a physical book in our hands.

In other words, seeing and feeling how much progress you’ve made in the story, by virtue of the progress one makes through pages of the book, can help readers feel like they’re unfolding the story—both literally and figuratively.

Plus, with a print book, it’s easier to go back and confirm information you may be unsure of without losing your place and having to scroll or click back on your device.

I’ve noticed for example that I remember where a statement or quote appears on the printed page. On a device I can rarely find the quote I was looking for.

For most of us, electronic books can cause screen fatigue, which may lead to blurred vision, redness, dryness, and irritation.

If you think about it, staring at a screen, as far as your eyes are concerned, is not that different from staring at a light bulb.

Print books, on the other hand, are both static and feature a bland (usually white or off-white) surface with a high contrast (usually black) ink.

As much as I initially liked the idea of hyper-links and other digital distractions built into the e-format, I find that the sheer inflexibility of a physical book is both more comfortable and easier to escape into.


Remember a few years ago when everyone seemed to brag about their ability to multi-task?

You might be able to do several things at once, but how well you do them, and how much you even remember doing them is an entirely different question. In short, how many things you can do at one time is far less important (most of the time) than how much you care about what you are doing.

Being able to do, and focus on, just one thing, has become something like a lost art.

Even an act as basic as eating or going for a walk is all too rarely done on its own.

Take note the next time you are out in public of how many (or few) people can sit, walk (or even drive) without some other distraction (usually a screen) at (or in) hand.

If your goal is to fully grasp and comprehend (and remember) the text in front of you, or even any direct experience, the much-heralded multi-tasking will not be your friend.

As a general rule, put the screen away (unless you need it for that passing response) and savor the one irreplaceable moment in front of you.

Reading a book is more restful

The blue light from your screen, even on night time settings, can mess up your melatonin levels and circadian cycles, making it harder for you to fall asleep and making you feel groggier when you wake up.

Plus, you won’t be tempted to drift into “doom-scrolling” with a book in your hands.

There’s something solid and, in an indefinable sense, reassuring about holding a book – especially if it’s a book a friend or family member gave you or recommended.

If you like this book, you’ll probably like that book

There are few things I like less than an algorithm that tells me what I want or how I should spend my time.

I also don’t like algorithms that track what I’ve read, and from that history make “suggestions”.

I don’t need AI suggestions – I need a book where the author, with a single focus (not multi-tasking) has a clearly defined story to tell.

Those online algorithms base their suggestions on what I’ve looked at – which might be a book or other items for someone else or that was of interest for a passing moment – and rarely if ever, considered again.

Search bars and card catalogs

Digital is great – for the things that it, and it alone can do.

An online search is far easier than the old fashioned card-catalog (ask your grandparents), but leads to more distractions than serendipitous discoveries.

Books are everywhere; and always the same sense of adventure fills us. Second-hand books are wild books, homeless books; they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack. Besides, in this random miscellaneous company we may rub against some complete stranger who will, with luck, turn into the best friend we have in the world. – Virginia Woolf, Street Haunting

My philosophical (and budgetary) bias is toward used books and book stores.

You never know what you might find there – it could be some long out of print book, or some classic edition or even a book with margin notes from a stranger who couldn’t help adding to the thoughts within those pages.

But wherever that book has been, it has been on shelves, in hands and, for some at least, well loved and still, in its own way, offers refuge, adventure and maybe even some inspiration for someone else.

That book sitting on some shelf or discount table just might change your life.

And your battery won’t die.

Remember that you are never wasting time while you read. It’s not always about the content or material you read. The simple act of reading, no matter what you read, focuses your attention and is valuable in and of itself. – Thatcher Wine, The Twelve Monotasks: Do One Thing at a Time to Do Everything Better