The Paper-Reader’s Dilemma

October 22, 2010 | 4 books mentioned 19 3 min read


coverIn a new commercial for the Amazon Kindle, a man and a woman lie on beach chairs, glazing beneath the sun.  The tragically average man is trying to read his iPad; due to the glare, he can no longer follow his Patterson.  The woman, Kindle in hand, has no problem with the sun; by the looks of her, she has no problems at all.  The man’s shortcomings are plain, and the message is equally clear: the Kindle will make you sexier and resist the sun.

I find the ad faintly comical.  In an effort to fend off Apple—which builds sex straight into its products—Amazon is grasping at whatever straw lies near.  But for me, the fun ends there.  After years of rising dread—the prophesied End of Books, the Bezos Newsweek cover—“it” is finally here.  No longer are books being pitted against pixels; pointing out that paper isn’t reflective either seems very 2007.  The war is now between tablets, as if the book never existed at all.

coverIn recent years, grief for such losses—music stores, newsrooms, this tradition or that—has become so common and compressed that it’s become a cultural given.  We now swallow our objections, lest they later seem absurd.  A few years ago, I stood in Tower Records, praising its stock to a friend: You can hold a compact disc; buying an album is a genuine act.  And just look at Bitches Brew: don’t you want to have it?

Of course, that Tower Records—along with most of its kind—is gone now; a jazz Pandora station is playing as I write.  The transition was far less wrenching than I’d previously expected; in fact, there was really no pain at all.  While I may miss aimless browsing, thoughts consumed by music, the process now seems needless, like baking bread from scratch.

I might say we’re at a moment when we face this choice as readers—the decision to climb into the boat or stay on familiar shores.  But the decision is not truly ours.  Time and again, these choices are made for us, by a collective sweep and push.  One day, everyone holds an iPod, and the next day, so do you.  Those who resist—the pipe smokers and vinyl hounds, stubborn to the end—come to seem affected, or possibly insane.  The rest of us seem modern, and eventually commonplace.

coverThe prospect of our wonders used to bring excitement.  In the early nineties, after seeing Dick Tracy, I dreamed of his two-way radio.  How cool would that be?  I thought.  Incredibly, I found out: as two-way radios came to market, then gripped every inch of our lives, they became not cool at all.  Awe gave way to grabbiness: digitize everything, please.  Books are the latest items to be forced into the hole.

So I should probably shrug at progress and enjoy a digital Roth.  But—and at this stage, I know the pointlessness of saying it—books feel different to me.  Everywhere I’ve lived, they’ve surrounded me; nearly every night since childhood, I’ve held one in my hands.  My mother was a librarian; my father sat me on his lap and read Tom Sawyer aloud.  I now do the same with my son, though he isn’t quite ready for Twain.  Everyone, to some degree, has a variation of this history.

So here is the dilemma: you love your books, with their meaning and their warmth, but you’re not some weepy sap.  You find romance in the object, yet none in being an outlier, unreasonably clinging to relics.  Do you get on the boat—with its gorgeous women and glare-free screens—or ignore it and hold on?  Had I asked myself this question around the time of my Tower trip, I would have flared out my response: I’ll never switch, you Logan’s Run drone.  Books are too vital to trade for some overmarketed whim.

But in the time since, I’ve given myself over to plenty of similar whims—and against all odds, they haven’t ravaged my soul.  Electric books hold no appeal to me; they feel like viral death.  But so did music taken from a set of coiled wires.  The sounds were what was important.  So my answer now, however reluctant, is this: I’ll hold on to books for as long as I can.  I’ll read them, lend them, fall asleep with them.  I’ll hope they hold their own, that novelty will wane.  And if it doesn’t—when it doesn’t—I’ll find myself among a crowd that I’d never hoped to join.

(Image: circuit board, from botheredbybees’s photostream)

is a staff writer for The Millions and an associate editor at MAD magazine. Find links to more of his work and follow him @Jacob_Lambert.


  1. I don’t understand the need to choose one form of books over the other. I picked up the “real” version of To the End of the Land and a digital copy of Darkness Visible last weekend. Switching between the two, I don’t sense any kind of let down or plastic experience. When it comes to the written word I say, the more the merrier.

  2. Thanks for the essay Jacob. I find myself playing a subtle “I can’t hear you” game with all references to the wonders of the Kindle. I’m sure I wouldn’t turn one down, but me and my books? We’re feeling pretty content just the way we are.

  3. I second the comment from Foster J. Pinkney. When I travel I read on my kindle and when I’m in my home I read from print books. Both have their purpose and I am a happier reader with both print and digital words at my fingertips.

  4. When publishers no longer print on paper, and libraries have gone fully digital, it will be the used bookstores of the land that are the last places were we can find our tangible books.

  5. I’m 51, and have read about 40 books a year since I was 20. I love physical books, and when I bought my iPad earlier this year, I gave e-books a try. It was the easiest format switch I ever made.

    There’s no need to apologize for wanting to stick with the paper model. But there’s no need to wear your preferences like a badge of honor, either.

  6. Great piece. Like you, I love the physical aspect of books – there are few things I enjoy as much as browsing through used books – but I don’t fear that e-readers will destroy literature or the experience of reading. I haven’t bothered to buy an e-reader yet because many of the books I read haven’t been digitized yet, but I look forward to a revolution of reissues like the one that CDs brought to music. And I won’t mind freeing some shelf-space when I finally get a reader; five years ago I gave away more than 200 vinyl albums and I haven’t regretted it once.

  7. It’s possible to love books as physical objects and still want an e-reader. Honestly, I’m getting a kindle because otherwise I will never finish Moby Dick – it just doesn’t fit in my bag and is too bulky for the bus.

  8. The Kindle is so wicked popular for deploying Soldiers. It’s totally impractical to tote 20 lbs of books across the Atlantic, but the Kindle?

    I love physical books as much as the next guy, but I’m pretty sure I’m not going back.

  9. E-readers just seem like technology for technologie’s sake. Other than use in school to eliminate heavy, unweildy textbooks, what purpose do they really have for the average, everyday reader? I have yet to hear a convincing argument that answers this queston. I stare at a computer screen all day long – the last thing I want to do at night is stare at another computer screen just to read a book, especially when I don’t have to. Let’s hope that reading paper doesn’t become a non-choice in the future! Try lending an e-book to a friend, reading an e-book to your child at night, lining your bookshelf with “A” e-reader. It’s just not the same and never will be! I don’t care which e-reader is the “best” b/c I just don’t care about e-readers at all! Why should I??

  10. My new kindle arrived (I had a 2nd gen already; this is the 3rd gen) and was having fun with it all weekend, loading it up with new books, showing it off to relatives, etc.

    Then my two year old found a little 2 inch by 1 inch Etch-a-Sketch, and began carrying around, playing with it, drawing on it, showing it to everyone and explaining it was a “puter” and “my little book.”

    That evening I read my kids a story off the kindle. We read a picture book too. The toddler went to sleep cuddling his “little book.” He would not be parted from it.

    It’s not the format but the content that matters. But I agree, there is something about the tactile interaction with an object which is soothing at the monkey-brain level. It’s amazing how quickly you come to love holding your reader.

  11. I think public libraries are the most crucial factor in the war between paper and screen. The dilemma framed by this essay is irrelevant to readers who never buy books. Libraries will have a much harder time switching to e-readers, because they require equipment. Maybe they will rent Kindles along with e-books? I’m reassured by the fact that my library still has a huge selection of CDs and VHS tapes; bureaucracy and budget cuts may finally benefit us by delaying digitization. Hopefully libraries will also be inundated by the books cast off by e-readers, pushing the switch even further off.

  12. I enjoyed this article, but I do have to say that I don’t see this as a dilemma. One can enjoy both print and digital formats. I don’t own an e-reader (no interest and no disposable income for it anyway), but I’m an avid online literary journal reader, and most people I’ve encountered who actually own e-readers still buy print books. I don’t think print, at least when it comes to literature, is going anywhere anytime soon.

    Of course e-readers will continue to rise in popularity, but print won’t die. I think print and digital will coexist for a good while. There are too many people who are emotionally/psychologically connected to the experience of reading a physical book. On top of that, the environmental effects of e-readers are pretty effing horrible (The Price of the Paperless Revolution by Ted Genoways).

  13. “JS” says above: “E-readers just seem like technology for technologie’s sake. Other than use in school to eliminate heavy, unweildy textbooks, what purpose do they really have for the average, everyday reader? I have yet to hear a convincing argument that answers this queston. ”

    Here’s my argument: I usually read during my daily commute to work, and I’m presently reading the complete Sherlock Holmes for the second time on my Nook. The last time I read it I could never do it during my commute because my copy of The Complete Sherlock Holmes is so large it’s hard to hold up even when reading it at home. By contrast, my Nook is small enough to fit in a pants pocket, and it also contains Moby Dick, the complete works of Jane Austin, and the complete works of Charles Dickens, all of which I’d be unable to read or reread during my commute.

    Incidentally, an e-reader is ideal for reading older books like the ones above, because unlike best sellers, out-of-copyright books in electronic form are free or virtually free and you’re not depriving authors of royalties (or used-book stores of their future stock) when you buy them.

  14. I am one of the few who appreciate the scent of the ink and the comforting heaviness of a book in hands There is something so beautiful and calming about flipping through pages of a book.

    I wish I could continue buying paper books and reading them. I really do. However, sadly, after moving to Asia, purchasing books (via Amazon) has become so painfully expensive (the shipping cost especially) that I am financially unable to indulge my protest.

    Every time I buy books from Amazon, I am an inch closer to buying a Kindle. And the flamboyant advertisement of Kindle at every corner of the check out page did not help either.

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