Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Vindication of the Rights of Paper Book Lovers - by Irene Peinhopf

           Right now, I’m reading a book about gender in Romantic literature – Romanticism and Gender by Anna K. Mellor - which has exposed me to a number of women authors of the Romantic period whose names I have not found in my previous studies.  They wrote novels with titles that are unfamiliar to me and told stories that I have not had the pleasure to read.  According to this discussion, part of the reason that women were actively publishing their works at this time, both anonymously and under their own names, is the “establishment of the lending library, which spread rapidly throughout England in this era [which] meant that books were widely accessible to a new and ever-growing readership, a readership composed in large part of upper- and middle-class women who preferred to read literature, and especially novels, written by women” (Mellor 1-2).    The lending library, an institution that helped to shape countless lives over the centuries - an institution based on the printed book.  All of that is a long-winded way to say that books, physical paper books are a part of our cultural heritage and you may call me a sad sentimentalist and a Luddite, but I believe – strongly – that paper books should not be relegated to the past in light of the new e-reader craze.
            Before I tell you more about why you should cherish your printed books, let me make a concession to this e-reader business.   First, let me admit freely and openly that I have not used an e-reader, and have not spent any time investigating their features.  I have looked at a friends’ Kindle and pondered its uses and whether or not I would hate reading on a digital screen (I hate reading anything longer than a medium length essay on the computer – oh the glare!).  However, I can see some uses for them.   For instance, if I were inclined to travel it would be simpler to bring an e-reader than to lug a suitcase of paperbacks with me.  Not only would it be lighter (paper sure is heavy) but it would also take up less room so I could take less luggage.  Also, having my library with me wherever I went would likely have some advantages, such as being able to access quotes and sections at need, which could be useful for school and you never know when you’ll need to prove that you remember the ending of Perfume correctly and all of your friends are wrong.  Yes, I can see how an e-reader could be useful and perhaps one day I will purchase one, but it would never replace my love and need for printed books.  It would only be an accessory to my library.
            Now that I’ve served you an anecdote and some disclaimers, let me tell you about why paper books are amazing and why you should want them to stick around.  Books are sensual.  Hear me out.  They engage the senses, not just sight and imagination, but smell and touch and they are wonderful ways to evoke memories – sensory and otherwise.  When my eyes roam over my shelves and I pick out Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar I remember the times I’ve read this novel and how I felt then – oppressed by the future, suffocating in my own mental glass dome and wanting nothing more than to escape and live without the pressure I was putting on myself; or perhaps my eyes rest on my copy of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (which at the moment they can’t because I’ve loaned it to a friend) and I recall the weekend I spent closeted away, barely talking to my friends and family because I was having a love-affair with a dead Russian author and his book.  They are visual cues for my memory bank.  As Anne Fadiman writes:

“Our books, however – even the ones printed long before we were born – remained ageless.  They recorded the passage of real time, and because they reminded us of all the occasions on which they had been read and reread, they also reflected the passage of the preceding decades. / Books wrote our life story, and as they accumulated on our shelves (and on our windowsills, and underneath our sofa, and on top of our refrigerator); they became chapters in it themselves.  How could it be otherwise?” (xi Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader). 

Books become a part of our lives much more so than our computers and iPods and gaming consoles, our cell phones or laptops.  But I was telling you about the senses, so let us return to that with one more visual appeal: I’m a sucker for a beautiful typeset.  There is just something about a gorgeously lettered book that makes my heart beat a little faster and makes my eyes dance over the page with added pleasure.  Another thing you gain from the printed book is the lush evocativeness of its smell – whether you love the new-book smell or the scent of a well-loved used book, or a book you’ve owned for so long that it smells of your own particular past.  And last but not least is the feel of a book in your hands, the friction of the paper, the thickness and density of the pages, the smooth or matte or leather or cloth of the covers, the different weights of paperbacks and trades and hardcovers.  These sensory impressions are important to me and I don’t know that I could replace all of these experiences with the cold feeling of an electronic device – I don’t go into raptures thinking about picking up and opening my laptop.
Let me backtrack to what I mentioned in passing above: I lent a book to a friend.  Are you following my train of thought here?  How would I lend a friend a book if I was reading on an e-reader?  The lending and borrowing of books is a treasured activity between my friends.  If I’m honest, I have to admit that it gives me some pains to send my treasures off into the world, but ultimately I know that I’ll see them again soon enough and that in the meantime someone is also enjoying a story I’ve loved.  By the same token, I’ve been exposed to and have come to love many authors and novels that I would never have thought to seek out on my own because a friend lent me a book.  I suppose if I really wanted to I could lend an e-reader to a friend, but with that I would give them my whole library and a fairly expensive piece of technology compared to a $10 paperback.  Which brings us to issues of cost: in this type of economy lending and borrowing books makes sense (also, the library which lends books), although I suppose if you’re paying $100+ for a fancy e-reader you’re not worried about your bank account.  P.S.: Don’t forget about used books, which fortunately will still be around even if the printed tome goes out of fashion, at least for a time so that bibliophiles like me can still get our required fix of paper and ink.
            In closing, let me say that you may label me as a Luddite and a sentimental old lady clinging with desperation to the world she feels comfortable with rather than accepting and welcoming the winds of change, but that doesn’t change the fact that printed books are important.  Picturing a world with only fancy gadgets and no one sitting in a coffee shop with a beat up paperback makes my heart ache with a loss we haven’t even experienced.  I cannot picture my life without books.  They are my silent, soothing companions, always ready to welcome me back with open pages and their ever-yielding words.  Those are just my two-cents and I’ll likely lose this particular battle.  As a society we love technology and I’m not an exception – I like having my iPod and writing blog entries and am a Twitter-addict, but I also think that with the rise of technology we might lose more than we gain.  I’m not sure I want to trade the sensory experience of reading a book for the convenience of carrying my whole library with me wherever I go.  I’m not saying you should frenziedly burn your e-reader in an attempt to escape the shackles of modern technology, but that the next time you pick it up you ask yourself this one simple question: what would it be like to read this in a print book?
             I’m not saying you should frenziedly burn your e-reader in an attempt to escape the shackles of modern technology, but that the next time you pick it up you ask yourself this one simple question: what would it be like to read this in a print book?


If you like what you’ve read and want to read some more of my thoughts you can read my weekly contributions  at where I (you guessed it) review books along with my cohorts Wren (predominantly movie reviews) and Tdro (the mistress of telling us about cute men).

Bio of our Guest Blogger: Irene (a.k.a. Doomwench) is, no kidding, getting her Masters degree in Vampire Studies (okay, she’s actually getting a degree in Germanic Studies, but she’s bent it to her will and is writing aboutNosferatu). She lives in Canada (but is originally from Austria) and enjoys reading about draculas. She also hates it when you call them draculas.  Needing somewhere to vent her thoughts on all of the books she reads, she began the Girl On Book Action blog with longtime friend and bibliophile Wren. Irene likes long walks on....wait, no she doesn't, she likes staying indoors reading, blogging, playing videogames and generally ignoring the sun.


  1. I'd love to have an e-reader of some sort. I would use it and want it out of the sheer convenience of it all, but mostly I want one of those dealies so I can eliminate all of the tertiary and unenjoyable things that take-up so much room.

    (I apologize for my invented words and grammer, I'm an Imagesmith not a wordsmith)

    Matt Elser

  2. I also lust after owning an e-reader (well when they don't hurt my brain to look at, which should be any time). But what I like is that I can do both, have the convenience of a library with me while I travel AND come home to the comforting sight of shelf upon shelf of book. I just hope one never tries to do in the other, because I want the world, the whole world.

    Great piece (she said nepotistically) I hope to see more of the like.

  3. This is a really thought-provoking article. Personally I love my Kindle, which came as almost a complete shock to me as I had always thought of myself as a good old-fashioned paper book-lover. Now, however, I feel guilty buying them, as it's more ecological to get them from a library (and theoretically an ebook should be greener than a physical book, although that seems to still be under debate).

    I also hadn't considered the lending issue before. I haven't run into the problem of not being able to loan something since it's in a non-transferable format yet, but I can see that it could happen.

    Lastly, the only part of your article I actually disagree with is this: "Books become a part of our lives much more so than our computers and iPods and gaming consoles, our cell phones or laptops." This may be true for hardcore bibliophiles, but I know many people who are more affected by a good video game or movie than a great book, and those who spend more time on their smartphone than on any book, e- or otherwise.

  4. @Terry

    Hmm. I would contest that it's only true for "hardcore" bibliophiles, I think just a bibliophile will likely prioritize books over other things. Otherwise, they aren't a bibliophile, are they?

    When I wrote that I was thinking that I like my computer, iPod, Xbox and that I enjoy spending the last couple of hours of my day playing whatever game I'm currently making my way through, but I don't feel that I *need* those things. I suppose it's a cultural shift at play here, from a reading culture to a more visually oriented culture and that I'm going to show my bibliophile bias some more by saying that a book offers a different relationship than a gaming console or a fancy phone. It's something I'll have to think about more.

    I'm starting to feel that I could write another whole article based on the discussions I've had about this one.

  5. I bought Jen a e-reader for her birthday (the Nook) she seems to like. I tried it, but it's just not the same, I need an actual BOOK in my hand.

  6. Wow...great blog. I dont know what a Luddite is, but if it means you're super smart and that you're opinion is right on the money, then your a huge Luddite. I love my Kindle but it does not replace paper books by any means. I love the dictionary that you can access with a push of a button. I love being able to download free books so I experiment with a variety of new authors and different genres. But nothing can replace the feel of a book in my hands. i usually have at least 3 books going at a time. One for the bathtub, a book that is "allowed" to get wet. Another book to go nighty night with and a book on my kindle that travels with me wherever i go.

    The thought that was foremost in my mind, as I was reading Doomwench's blog, was about some disaster hitting the world. Only small groups of people are left. Technology is useless. Where are the e-books now? What will be left for reference and culture and history is the paper books in those old fashioned places called libraries.

  7. I'm so behind in answering comments, but I will reply to all!

    @Matt You actually didn't make up any words and your grammar was acceptable until you called it "grammer." And you are a formidable Imagesmith so all is forgiven.

    @Wren One day, when we both own e-readers we're going to have multiple copies of all of the best books, one in print and one electronic. Won't that be great?

    @atc My big concern with the e-readers is that they still seem to have that computer-screen-glare problem. Once they figure that out they might be more appealing to me, though they will never replace my ever-growing library.

    @zombiemom Sadly, that's not what a Luddite is. A Luddite is generally understood to be someone who is anti-technology. And happily I don't think we have to worry about existing books being consigned to the fire or anything so they'll always be hidden away somewhere in case of global technology-destroying disasters. One day they just might not print as many anymore if we switch over to e-readers and those of us with our print book fetish will scour used bookstores for treasures even more so than we do now.

  8. Irene, again excellent article. Thank you again for contributing. Two brief points for you to mull over if you ever do decide to try out an e-reader. The kindle, the nook, the kobo and most other e-readers don't use back-lit screens and have non-reflective surfaces to reduce glare issues; you can even take them into direct sunlight. With regards to your lending point, the nook actually has a limited lend feature where you can send e-books to friends. It's only for two weeks and you can only lend a specific book one time, but the technology is there.
    Thank you again! -Shawn

  9. Hmm, the last time I looked at a Kindle the screen still bothered me - maybe it was an earlier model?

    And that's interesting about the Nook and lending. I have a feeling that in a year or two most of the non-sentimental issues I have with e-readers will have been ironed out, but I probably still won't replace my paper library. I'll just have both.

    Thanks for having me! I had a great time writing this article and I really enjoyed your Locke & Key review!