What Good Are Printed Books? Here We Go Again…

Dear Readers, I ask you, what good are printed books?

This question grows old, I agree, after we spent weeks addressing it on this very site.  Still, a recent spate of articles has sent it chasing round my brain, so here we are again.

EXHIBIT A: “The Fate of the Book” in The Chronicle Review

Article One: William Germano’s provocative title “What Are Books Good For?” leads to the less provocative claim that even inside the “knowledge machine” of a digital text, the codex remains as a “ghost-like” presence.  The book, in other words, once “freed of its materiality,” yet lives.

Okay, maybe I’m a little provoked.  But hold that thought.

Article Two: “The Cult of the Book—and Why it Must End” by Jeffrey R. Di Leo.

Throwing around words like “cult” and “myth” is a dirty rhetorical gambit.  But Di Leo does it repeatedly, which makes me want to just kick him in the shins.

In his favor, Di Leo argues that digital multi-media offers exciting prospects for hybrid forms that should be valued by the academy.  Who could disagree?

But if Professor Di Leo wants to root out the cult of the mythic book, he’s going to have to hire meatier thugs than these three 90-pound weaklings: “Digital books are more affordable, accessible, and environmentally friendly.”

The Old One-Two-Three Knock-Out Punch, or What happens Your Opponent Brings His Own Strawmen to the Fight

Books on a shelf

Also not an e-book

More environmentally friendly? Having dispelled Di Leo’s cult-like myth before, I will repeat only briefly that e-readers are not made of pixie wings, and don’t run on dreams.  In fact, e-readers are MORE environmentally destructive than mowing down trees.  I’m tired.  YOU look up the environmental and human cost of manufacturing, transporting, running and disposing of the hardware required for e-media. Multiply that by the speed of planned obsolescence.  Then look up the data on the escalating CO2 emissions from server farms and weep.

More affordable? Affordability doesn’t end at the bottom of our pockets.  It ends when we’ve counted all the costs.  And costs to the planet (see above) are ultimately costs to our own well-being.  Perhaps on his next sabbatical, Professor Di Leo might invest in a good course on ecoliteracy, and another on environmental justice.

More accessible?  To whom? According to George Lucas’ Edutopia, half (HALF) the households in the U.S. have no internet access at home.  How many of those families can afford reading gadgets?  Globally, the picture’s even worse.

But Wait, There’s More

Here’s the kicker: Professor Di Leo writes that “Words may look better in print, and a book may feel better in your hands than a Kindle or an iPad, but the words are the same.”

Well, yes, and if I scrawled Ulysses on Dublin walls with the rusty point of a two-penny nail, I could say pretty much the same thing: The “words may look better in print, and a book may feel better in your hands…but the words are the same.”

Personally, I might enjoy reading Ulysses this way.  Especially if it weren’t raining.  But I would never suggest that the physicality of the experience doesn’t matter.

Because reading is not only an intellectual and imaginative undertaking, but a sensory one.  The feel of paper, the heft of a tome, the font, the page size, the sound of turning pages, the smell of the glue, the look of the binding, the markers of space and of time (where AM I in the book?  Two inches to go.  Where was that passage? About ½ inch from the beginning, top of the left hand side).

How easily Germano and Di Leo make moot the material experience of the world.  The experience of the body.

At least the third writer in the series, Diane Wachtel, has the decency to call the books on our shelves “little more than furniture.”  At least upholstery has some oomph to it.

What I’m not saying and what I am

This is not an argument for the superiority of the printed book, which can only lead to the hurling of pies.

This is an argument for the value of embodied experience.   Resolved: The sensory is not trivial.

As one commenter to Germano’s column noted, “there’s a lot to be said for the way books can sensualize ideas, infusing them with color, image, the sound of pages sliding together…. These qualifiers give a life and personality to ideas, fixing them in our brains.”

How it All Ties Together, or Notes Toward a Theory of Everything

It’s no accident that Professor Di Leo, who so easily dismisses the value of touch and sight, is so unschooled about the physical world.  Product of a Cartesian ethos, he may be doing the best he can.

I admit that the digital world makes many wonders possible.  Like this virtual gathering right here.   But it also has the power to move us even further away from the world of the bodily others who share the planet, human and non-human alike–at a time we can least afford it.

The world where we harvest the raw materials for e-readers is the same world that sustains us in all our physical reality and need.

rusty nail in weathered board

writing implement

So don’t tell me the ghost in the machine is the same as the living flesh.  No matter how many scholars say so, I’ll never believe it.  And if you send me a rusty two-penny nail, I’ll even scrawl my refusal on the wall.


This week’s links: Germano, “What Are Books Good For?”; Di Leo, “The Cult of the Book”; Diane Wachtel, “Books Aren’t Crucial, but Long-Form Texts Are”; other posts on the physicality of reading and paper books: here, and here; post on the relative environmental impact of paper books and e-readers; New York Times article on e-reader environmental impact.


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52 Responses to “What Good Are Printed Books? Here We Go Again…”

  1. loripop326 Says:

    Oh my god.

    I couldn’t have said this any better myself. And just to drive home, allow me a personal example.

    I have recently broken my e-reading cherry. I read my first ever e-book on my iTouch. The book, The Nature of Trees by David Weedmark, has soared to the top of my must-read list. As in, everyone must read it, and I must read it again.

    But one of my immediate thoughts when I finished the last electronic word? “I can’t wait to hold this book in my hands.”

    Yeah, yeah. I was already holding the book in my hands.

    But it just wasn’t the same.
    Never will be.

    Thank you!

    • Tracy Seeley Says:

      Thanks for your comment! It drives me nuts, these people who say, It’s only words and words are words, get with the program–as though we take the world in only through our eyes. It just makes me want to lick the pages of my books and say, see?

  2. Tara Seeley Says:

    As to costs, don’t forget the costs in human misery when the precious materials used in our digital gadgets are mined to pay for the destructive rage of armed thugs in places like the eastern Congo. Just type “conflict free electronics” in your search engine for more information.

    • Tracy Seeley Says:

      Thanks, Tara–good reminder. The Congo and the toxic waste dismantled by the poor in developing countries were what I had in mind by “human costs”–but your specificity here makes the point even stronger. Our distance from the sources of materials for our electronics and digital wizardry make it easy to think our hands are clean. Meanwhile, the land and people suffer.

  3. Maria Says:

    My glib answer is this: our apartment comes with a 12 by 8 foot wall of built-in-bookcases. Printed books are important because we have to put something in that huge bookcase!

    I was joking, but I also mean that seriously. Printed books are important because when friends come over, they can browse our wall of books and get a pretty good idea of what we are about. (Of course sometimes I have to back up and say, “Oh, THAT one is my housemate’s book, not mine.”) There is no e-book equivalent of pulling a book off a friend’s shelf and asking about it, and the friend offering to lend it out. It is a wonderful combination of physical and intimate and casual. I love looking at the books at friend’s houses, and I love people looking at my books, and I love people’s very enthusiastic responses to our twelve-foot built-in ladder to access that wall of books.

    • Tracy Seeley Says:

      Hi Maria–
      My next post is going to be about libraries (personal, public and other)–and these are exactly the sorts of things that make a physical collection valuable: browsing and serendipitous discovery, revelations of personality and preference, sociability and sharing. Thanks for adding your two-cents’ worth!

  4. Annick Says:

    Beautiful, as always. I’m with you – and will go read a real book right now. Just for a moment so the rustle of the pages can put me to sleep…

  5. Maringouin Says:

    I have to admit that I have quite a few digital books. But I don’t have an eReader. The only computer I have is a small Asus EeePC and it serves both as desktop, laptop, movie theatre and e-book reader. I need to be very mobile and tend to live in areas with limited library access so having a lot of my reference stuff digitized works well for me.
    That being said, I still prefer printed books when I can manage it.
    On the environmental side: a friend once worked on a project involving archival storage for a major national library. The senior archivist made the point that print on acid-free paper is the best way to store material for the long term. Electronic media wear out and have to be replaced regularly (then you have to throw out the old media). Also, since electronic media change over time, old media (remember 5-1/2 inch floppies? I betray my age…) can’t be read any more (and have to be thrown out)… physical books are actually more environmentally friendly over the long term, especially if you get into using post-consumer waste for the paper.
    I do admit that I think multi-media ‘textbooks’ could be very useful for students; but there’s a lot of pointless multi-media around (just for the sake of saying Oooh, there’s a video in it…).

    • Tracy Seeley Says:

      I hear you on all these counts! Thanks for the many thoughtful comments. The archival issue is a huge one, precisely for the reasons you lay out here– and I ALSO remember 5-1/2 floppies, and then the smaller ones, which have also gone with the winds of change. I’m curious where you are, with limited library access. Someplace interesting, I hope.

      • Maringouin Says:

        I live on the island of Gozo, in the country of Malta. Mid-Mediterranean. Definitely interesting! but no serious bookstores and an extremely limited local lending library (popular paperbacks mostly). Project Gutenberg is my friend for a lot of reading. I also sometimes download public-domain audiobooks (Librivox). My balancing act between digital and printed consists, as I said, of refusing to have separate devices for each electronic task… just one netbook. I still prefer the printed page and find it much, much easier to use when doing research (as opposed to reading for pleasure).

      • Tracy Seeley Says:

        Well, if I can send you anything (real or virtual), let me know. Now I’m going to Google “Gozo” and learn all about it.

  6. john Says:

    If anyone asks what use are printed books I also feel the next question should be what use are people. People like printed books use up a lot of space, take up resources and fall apart. But like printed books some people have a plethora of redeeming qualities. I mean maybe ‘Mein Kampf’ is a printed book which would have been better off unprinted, but I’d keep almost all the rest of them. I read therefore I am I’m sure people say and the format we used to take for granted has coloured decades of our lives. I guess new generations may not feel the same way, but to deride the printed book is shallow. And I’m not taking a computer on a beach, up a mountain or to the toilet anytime soon- to get less theoretical about it.

    • Tracy Seeley Says:

      Somehow I missed commenting on your comment–which I don’t like doing (or not doing, rather). I love this: “the next question should be, what use are people?” Indeed. They do fall apart, don’t they–but by then we’ve had the pleasure of their company for a good long while.

  7. Sue Diplock Says:

    Does it have to be and either/or situation with printed versus e-books? I am simply running out of space and reluctant to clear out books to make space for more – I got rid of a few hundred a couple of years ago – and it was difficult to find anyone to take them rather than simply dump them.

    I enjoy using my new Kindle – it is light and easy to use, especially for those ‘easy reads’ which I probably will only read once. But I do miss the ability to share them with friends and family.

    It is, however, also very good for some scholarly stuff – Thomas Aquinas, Saint Augustine – cheap and accessible.

    Environmentally, I hear the arguments – but a house chock full of books is a house chock full of books and also an environmental disaster when they end up piled up on the floor! And at least I don’t even possess a tumble dryer!

    • Tracy Seeley Says:

      Hi Sue,
      No, it doesn’t have to be either/or. That’s exactly what I don’t like about all these writers who say, essentially, get with the modern world, it’s going digital, so give up your old-fashioned books–and if you don’t, you’re a loser/fetishist/fogey/cult member.

      Well, I guess there’s environmental disasters and then there’s environmental disasters. I hear you about the piles of books, though I guess I’d opt for that over other catastrophic options. It’s a hard equation to sort out–

  8. Shannon Seeley W Says:

    Where’s the fun in an e-reader? Atlas Shrugged without a pillow to prop up the weight of it as I feel each gloriously smooth page, turning, turning, turning? The Complete Works of Robert Burns in a 1928 edition without the yellowing pages and that delicious smell of old library? The Pop-up book of Scary Things without the Pop-up play? E-reader, Schme-reader.

  9. Tyler Gates Says:

    I’m working right now at the epicenter of this debate: for an iPhone/Pad app that features about 24K books from the public domain with a fancy e-reader and all that. My job is to organize the books into easily navigable collections and genres, write descriptions of books and authors, etc. So I see what’s going on in the wild wild world of digital books, and I have some thoughts.

    First off, I don’t think the printed book is in jeopardy of being replaced by the e-book. It’s just not as enjoyable to read long-form on a device, and it never will be. While it might be refreshing to remember that you’ve got 24K books on your iPhone when you forgot your book for that long bus ride (but what serious reader would forget?), it’s still not going to be gratifying to read your Oscar Wilde on a phone. I have poured over tens of thousands of books, have written hundreds of book descriptions, and I haven’t yet read a single e-book all that way through. There are hundreds of millions of smart phones out there, yet reading anything long on them can only be a novelty.

    The iPad does make it easier to read longer work, but who wants to doze off to the soft electric glow of an iPad, especially while reading a book that’s 200 years old? You’re right about the sensuousness of a physical book–I just don’t see that getting supplanted by plastic and glass. Perhaps if one was reading sci-fi it might feel appropriate. And in terms of the Kindle, the fact that the one we got for my dad sits moldering next to a stack of library books is evidence that it’s only a toy by comparison.

    Lastly, I think the folks who foresee the “death” of the printed word are being sensationalists, but obviously they can cause quite a stir. We’re some time off before everything goes all Minority Report on us. I don’t know though — they did just ask me to sign up for “Finger Print ID check-in” at the 24 Hr Fitness, which I opted out of.

    One final thought: I read that e-book sales on Amazon have just beaten out regular book sales. The question I think here is what books are we talking about? Are we talking about Charles Dickens here, or the Twilight series? I’m betting the latter.

    This debate is fascinating. Keep it going!

    • Tracy Seeley Says:

      Thanks, Tyler. There are so many reasons I agree–printed books aren’t going out of business, and I also suspect as you do, that most books bought for e-readers are what I think of as “disposable.” Of course, there are exceptions to that general thought (and I have zero evidence, which makes me sound like some of the political know-nothings running around in 3-cornered hats of late). Id’ be curious about what’s really selling.

      I can’t imagine reading anything on a screen as small as an iPhone’s. That’s why when I had to replace my 5-year-old phone recently, I asked for the dumbest thing they had.

      Glad to know you’re out there on the front lines. Keep sending reports.

  10. Bob Davidson Says:

    Just finished reading Cannery Row on my iPhone. I could still smell the tide pools and hear the waves, but I also had a tough time blocking out the busy visuals outside of my device. I suppose I will read maybe 500-600 books before I die, so I think I’ll stick with the paper variety.

    • Tracy Seeley Says:

      Hi Bob, Thanks for dropping in. I’m actually going to test drive one of those gizmos amazon sells just so I can denounce it from experience rather than only in theory. My library has one to check out. I really can’t imagine reading on a screen as small as an iPhone, though. Might as well just have the text projected onto my thumbnail.

      I also look forward to reading a few more hundred books in this lifetime, and then an eternity-long membership in the Great Library Beyond.

  11. What Good Are Printed Books? Here We Go Again… (via Tracy Seeley’s Blog) « Writing, Transposed. Says:

    […] Dear Readers, I ask you, what good are printed books? This question grows old, I agree, after we spent weeks addressing it on this very site.  Still, a recent spate of articles has sent it chasing round my brain, so here we are again. EXHIBIT A: “The Fate of the Book” in The Chronicle Review Article One: William Germano’s provocative title “What Are Books Good For?” leads to the less provocative claim that even inside the “knowledge machine” of a … Read More […]

  12. Harvey Morrell Says:

    You might be interested in an article by Ruth Klüger’s view of ebooks:
    Author, retired German Literature professor and enthusiastic ebook convert Ruth Klüger leads the way into the almost weightless future of reading.

    On a personal note, while I appreciate the ability to read on my Kindle and iPod Touch, I still prefer to read most books in their printed version.

  13. Nicholas Ifkovits Says:

    Regarding the environmental aspect of this discussion, trees for paper products of every kind are now raised, like corn, for that purpose, and are a renewable resource. International Paper, for example, plants one hundred trees for every tree it cuts. Furthermore, an interesting tidbit; There are now more trees in the United States than there were in 1865, and the number of trees being planted continues to grow.

    • Tracy Seeley Says:

      Thanks for this, Nicholas–it’s important information. I wish more people understood that production of reading material is so much bigger than the matter of how many trees get cut down. I appreciate your stopping by.

  14. Richard Gilbert Says:

    What a stimulating post and great discussion. I just got a Kindle and managed to lose myself in and enjoy a novel on it, and it worked well when riding an exercise bike. But the digital reading experience isn’t as rich as reading a physical book, nonetheless.

    I read now as a writer, for one thing, and what I desperately missed was being able to see the book’s structure and to ponder it as I read. It’s very important, I think, to serious readers this cue that a writer gives readers about how the drama was broken into sections, and how many, and how long, or not. I missed that desperately, and have now ordered the physical book to reread it.

    • Tracy Seeley Says:

      Hi Richard–You’re not the first person to tell me they read something on their e-reader, and then had to get the hard copy to really make sense of the shape and structure of the book. I agree with you–as a writer, I really want to travel the geography of a whole book–and that takes three dimensions and a host of physical markers that e-readers don’t deliver. Thanks for stopping by!

  15. Maringouin Says:

    Tracy, I thought you might be interested in this but didn’t know where exactly to put it…

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