“Readers Still Prefer Physical Books”, that’s the headline that reads from a Forbes article regarding arguably the biggest comeback in culture today. The physical book, once thought to become extinct by the surging threats of electronic books and audiobooks, is still going strong in sales – and in preferences. As Ellen Duffer discussed in her article about a recent Canon (printer) survey, “Sixty-five percent of respondents, according to Canon, prefer physical books over e-books and audiobooks; 29% prefer e-books, while 18% prefer audiobooks.” While the audiobook is still rising, the eBook is losing slowly in popularity and practicality.
The Physical Book Is Rising Again
The Habit of Reading
For many from the old generation, physical books were part of the everyday decoration in every home. It wasn’t strange to find someone in the family immersed in a book, whether it was a novel or non-fiction. Books represented access to knowledge, even for the layman. A vivid example of this is Kathryn Schulz beautiful essay for The New Yorker in which she talks about her family habit of reading, especially her father:
“Some people love books reverently—my great-aunt, for instance, a librarian and a passionate reader who declined to open any volume beyond a hundred-degree angle, so tenderly did she treat their spines. My father, by contrast, loved books ravenously. His always had a devoured look to them: scribbled on, folded over, cracked down the middle, liberally stained with coffee, Scotch, pistachio dust, and bits of the brightly colored shells of peanut M&M’s.”
The joy and habit of reading became an alarming issue in the 21st century. A recent poll shows that reading a book, either a novel or any other genre, was in an all-time low. As Christopher Ingraham details on data from the National Endowment of Arts, “the share of adults reading at least one novel, short story, poem or play in the prior year fell from 57 percent in 1982 to 43 percent in 2015.” Many will point the finger towards technology, but, as Ingraham suggests in his Washington Post article, reading was on a decline way before the tech boom – since the 1980s.
Technology and the Physical Book
Technology tends to get the blame on this topic. Stories of parents mishandling the way children use tablets, computers or cell phones pollute the media nowadays. Plus, books like Nicholas G. Carr’s The Shallows, on how the internet is changing our brains, can really paint a horrific picture on how the habit of reading a physical book is getting lost and the domination of technology is imminent.
This was what professor of journalism and communications from Iowa State University, Michael Bugeja, was afraid of and set to find out with one of his courses. Bugeja wanted to know how his students – mainly Generation Z – would react to reading a physical book. He instructed his students to bring a physical book for his course “Technology and Social Change” and to read it. Later, they would write a book review about it. Would cell phones, social media, and other distractions prove to be a barrier for this extra credit?
As Bugeja points out in his insightful article for The Chronicles of Higher Education, the experience for his students was eye-opening and refreshing. Many of his students noted that marking the passages and writings on the actual physical book was helpful. It made them remember key points and to retrieve important information for their book-review assignment. Moreover, the students pointed out that it was satisfying to focus on the reading and not being distracted by social media or their phones. For many, Bugeja notes, this was the first time that they had read a book cover-to-cover, especially a physical one. This little experience had almost all the students from the course affirming that reading a physical book was an enjoyable experience – 92 percent. This little nugget that Bugeja found out through this small experiment sheds light on the magic of the physical book.
The Succes of Michelle Obama’s Becoming
The Bugeja experiment wasn’t an isolated result on the powers of physical books. The year 2019 has shown how big of an impact the physical book is causing in culture. Timothy Egan attributes the success of the still strong market for the physical book to Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming:
“True, nearly one in four adults in this country has not read a book in the last year. But the book — with a spine, a unique scent, crisp pages and a typeface that may date to Shakespeare’s day — is back. Defying all death notices, sales of printed books continue to rise to new highs, as do the number of independent stores stocked with these voices between covers, even as sales of electronic versions are declining.”
As Egan later explains in his New York Times essay, Michelle Obama’s beautiful storytelling and her giant figure combined for a wide success of her book, which has sold more than 10 million copies. He later concludes on the importance of the physical book:
“While our attention span has shrunk, while extremists’ shouting in ALL-CAPS can pass for an exchange of ideas, while our president uses his bully pulpit as a bullhorn for bigotry and ignorance, the story of our times is also something else. It’s there in the quieter reaches, in pages of passion and prose of an ancient technology.”
Last Word on the Resurgence of the Physical Book
Ancient technology is an attribute to convey how the physical book persists. While audiobooks are more practical and eBooks are cheaper, the physical book still holds up in our modern technological age. There’s something personal and romantic on how we interact with physical books. We immerse in their stories and always come out of them we something gained. We experience life alongside them; we tend to associate chapters of our life with that great book we read that time. As Oliver Sacks explained in his remarkable essay, “Reading the Fine Print:”
“But there is a fundamental difference between reading and being read to. When one reads actively, whether using the eyes or a finger, one is free to skip ahead or back, to reread, to ponder or daydream in the middle of a sentence — one reads in one’s own time. Being read to, listening to an audiobook, is a more passive experience, subject to the vagaries of another’s voice and largely unfolding in the narrator’s own time.”
Indeed, reading actively unlocks a magical world, where words turn into images on ways of life, people and culture. The big tech companies may be eating away many of our old ways of living, but it seems that the physical book is still a bastion that won’t go off without a good fight.
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