I followed some links this morning to an interesting newsletter post (is that what we’re calling them?) by Lincoln Michel, entitled “Maybe It’s Time to Admit People Just Like Books?“. I’m old enough to remember most of the struggles between physical and digital media, from the rise of Napster to the advent of Netflix and other streaming services. Paper versus electronic books is just another facet of the broader technological skirmishes that the internet age as necessitated. But, as Michel points out, there’s something different about this one:
As recently as 2015 or so, the common wisdom was that physical books were going the way of the VHS tape or CD. Sure, there would always be “snobs” who held onto physical media. But the market would be dominated by digital books in the same way that music, movies, and TV shows have moved almost entirely to streaming. There was no advantages to books except “nostalgia” and “fetish,” the thinking went, and the digital savvy youth would put an end to the outdated physical book. When publishers fought with Amazon to keep ebook prices close to print prices, the online commentariat mocked them for their backwards thinking that was going to doom the industry.
And yet here we are in 2021, fourteen years after the Kindle was first released and many years into an age when music, TV, film, and other media are almost entirely digital. Yet print books are not only strong, they still dominate the market. This is at the same time that pitiful music streaming payouts are crushing the music industry and digital magazines, constantly wrecked by changes in social media algorithms, are perpetually closing and laying off workers.
Maybe, he posits, there’s just something to physical books — something that still appeals, despite the convenience of ebooks, and appeals to a far wider audience than literary snobs, luddites, and fuddy-duddies. The physicality of a paper book is integral to the experience of reading it: the feel of the pages, the weight of it in your hands, perhaps the smell, the dog-eared pages and scribbled marginalia. Among my favourite books, I also have favourite editions. I like Pride and Prejudice the best in the pocket-sized hardback Oxford World’s Classics edition. When I reread The Lord of the Rings, it makes a difference whether I read the movie-tie-in set of three mass-market paperbacks, or the hefty red thousand-pager with its miniscule type and narrow margins.
I think that there is also something about physical books that is fundamentally invitational. Any library, no matter how small, no matter its setting, invites you to browse, to run your fingers along the spines of its collection, to stop and flip through something that caches your eye. A book read in public can spark a knowing glance or a conversation. The colorful pages of board books and picture books invite our children into the mysteries of reading itself — the magical insight that these squiggles and dots carry meaning, a meaning that is always the same but will also tell us different things as we grow and change. The paper itself invites us to read with a pen in hand, joining in conversation with the author, with previous readers, and even with our past selves.
If there are sides to pick here, I’ve always been on the side of physical books. That is probably obvious. But what’s surprised me over the course of the pandemic, as my reading habits have swung wildly between poles, is how much I’ve come to rely on ebooks. And — depending on the day you ask me — they might even be what I prefer.
Is that weird? It feels weird to me, since I’ve been in the paper camp for so long, appreciating ebooks the ease of toting them around on vacations but not much else. A lot of what makes physical books so experiential is entirely missing from the ebook reading experience; no matter what I’m reading, on my phone it’s going to look about the same as anything else. But even with these differences, ebooks have come to fill an important niche in my reading.
During the covid-19 pandemic, especially in the first half of 2020, both what and how I read changed dramatically. There were times I found myself in a sort of paralysis when reading was simply impossible. I’ve sent dozens of books back to the library unread over the past year and change. When I could read, I took a hard bend toward fiction, particularly of the escapist varities: fantasy, science fiction, romance. But what I found was that during those times when picking up and holding a book was somehow too much (in a year that had more than its fair share of too much), ebooks had an approachability that I needed. They felt low-stakes. Checking out and returning them takes three seconds and a few thumb presses. And at least in my library system, the electronic versions of popular books often have far fewer holds on them than their physical counterparts, or sometimes none at all. When I was reading through Louise Penny’s back catalogue last summer, I read about half of her Inspector Gamache novels on my phone, where they were nearly always immediately available. Perhaps most importantly on a personal level, I can read a book on my phone in an otherwise dark room as I wait for my daughters to fall asleep. Over the past year+ ebooks have been, for me, a bit of a lifesaver. I’m still reading physical books, but the ratios are a lot closer to even than they’ve ever been.
Many people have speculated over the years that books, like other physical media, will eventually be relegated to the realm of niche collectors’ items. Lincoln Michel argues that the reverse may in fact be true. While Boomers embraced ebooks enthusiastically, Gen Z is not so interested:
…the gen z “digital natives” that were supposed to ensure ebook supremacy are actually the least interested in ebooks. They get plenty of screen time as it is between movies, TikTok, and video games. When it comes time to read a book, they’re ready for a break. (It’s actually aging boomers who are the most attached to ebooks, making one wonder if it won’t be ebooks going the way of the dinosaur soon…)
Here in the messy Millennial middle, I’m not so sure that either of them is going anywhere. I can finally appreciate the distinct advantages that each form brings to the table, and if they maintain their current market equilibrium, then all the better for all of us.