The Feel of Books

“Those of you who have seen my book, whatever you think of its contents, will probably agree it is a beautiful object. And if the physical book, as we’ve come to call it, is to resist the challenge of the ebook, it has to look like something worth buying, worth keeping.”

— Julian Barnes, accepting the Man Booker prize for The Sense of an Ending

e-books are all very well, they say, but you can’t beat the feel of a traditional, print book can you? The sheer prevalence of this response has got me thinking about what it really means. Interestingly, when questioned further about what exactly they like about the feel of books, the conversation turns more vague….

There are also things I do miss about the physical book format, the book-shelf experience for one. I spent a very pleasant half an hour last weekend browsing my book-shelf with a friend, discussing books I’d enjoyed and passing on novels I thought she’d enjoy. Browsing the list of e-books on my Kindle does not offer a similarly satisfying experience….

But the feel of books? I can’t say that’s something I miss. I love reading. I’ve been an avid reader since I was a child and I think the written word might be the medium that has inspired and moved me the most in my life so far. What has inspired and moved me, though, is the content of the books I’ve read, whether this was printed on a page or delivered digitally via my Kindle.

— MmITScotland, What’s So Great about the Feel of Books?

I don’t suppose we’ll be done with the digital vs. print debate any time soon, probably because it isn’t really about which well-understood thing is superior to which other well-understood thing. Instead, it’s an effort to make sense of new things that throw the old into wholly new contexts, redefining everything else as they define themselves.

So it is with e-books. Before e-books were an option, we had little reason to ask, “What is a book anyway?” Or if we did ask, it would most likely have been in the context of distinguishing book-like content from non-book-like content. But here the content remains (relatively) constant, while everything else changes. Before this shift, it had been a long time since we’d asked questions like, “What good are paper & print for communicating ideas & stories?” And rarely, if ever, have we had reason to think of the feel of books (or for that matter, their smell) as something separate from the books themselves.

But here we are. Readers inclined to embrace technological change have been enthusiastic. Print books are all very well, they say, but you can’t — you shouldn’t — stop the March of Progress! Out with the old, in with the new; and don’t hold back out of some quaint attachment to inferior technology! After all, they say, we’ve been through this before; it’s just more of the same, another step forward, nothing to be afraid of. Stop being so silly!

RT @: I accept that this new papyrus stuff is easy to carry around, but I'd miss the feel of a chiseled slab of stone in my hand
I’ve argued before that a book is what’s bound together, regardless of whether that binding is accomplished via catgut or DRM; but the physical form of the bound book does make a difference. What can printed bound books can do that digital content delivery systems cannot? Until now, the question simply hasn’t come up. The value of print books as distinct from the newer digital formats lies not in the things that both formats can do (poorly or well), but in the things that digital books can’t do at all.

This is where I think the e-book advocates have got it wrong. When Julian Barnes praises the physical book as a beautiful object, he’s speaking as the recipient of an award for excellence in literary craft, to a room full of people whose craft is publishing printed books, who may be wondering where that craft is headed as a viable business. Printed books have always been potentially beautiful objects; with the rise of e-books, this aspect comes to the fore. Printed books can be a tactile delight: the tightness of its binding, the texture of its cover, the heft & weight of its pages — all these create a physical relationship between reader & text, lived and felt in the body, present in, with, & under the “content” of the book.1 For some books, and for some readers, this will be a less or more important; but for the authors & publishers engaged in the craft of making books, renewing an understanding of the old format is at least as important as exploring the advantages of the new.

What is it that creates the “book-shelf experience” of being bodily in the same room with particular volumes of ideas, each standing physically next to each other and to us? What does it mean for business leaders to work in the corner office with Socrates or Sun Tzu or John Updike, or Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in there, too, visibly present? What’s the difference between text that requires electricity to be read, and one that requires only eyes? What does a home full of physical books mean for the child just learning to read, or for the exhausted mother just learning to read aloud to her child? And what do these experiences do for us that cannot be done by files on an electronic gadget?

Appreciating the distinct strengths of printed books, even before we fully understand them, is not a blind, fearful resistance to Progress. It is merely the willingness to listen to the printed page, and learn its lessons. And just as the page will teach us to write, and to read, so too it will teach us to publish.

  1. This is not to say that e-books cannot be beautiful — Theodore Gray’s The Elements is famously beautiful both as print object and as iPad app. The beauty of painting, though, is not the beauty of sculpture, and there’s room, if we have patience, to appreciate both.


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