In Praise of (Real) Books

Does the book have a future?  You know, books made of paper with pages that must be turned.  I’m genuinely unsure of the answer, though the way bookstores are closing and digital book sales are increasing make me wonder.  As an unabashed lover of books – not simply the words but the physicality of covers and pages – I am unenthusiastic about a future where reading is restricted to digital formats.

The fact that I write these thoughts on my laptop to be published as digital text means, I think, that I’m not a Luddite.  (Though, would that be so bad?)  No, in addition to my own nostalgia there are a couple of things about an exclusively e-reader future that make me sad.  My son and my grandfather have crystallized these reasons for me.

First, my son.  Eliot is two years old and loves to read, be read to, and, recently, read to his bear and giraffe.  He has shelves of books thanks to generous family members and prefers to take his morning milk in bed with a few books in the company of bear and giraffe.  My sister, a second grade teacher, has been pleased at Eliot’s interest in reading and ability to navigate pages in their proper order.  He has learned this, she says, from being read to and by watching his parents read.

The nighttime ritual: a book or two or three before bed.

It seems, that at his young age, my son is developing an intellectual understanding about how to read and an emotional appreciation about why reading matters.  As best I can tell, he is developing in these ways because he is read to and observes his parents reading.  If Maggie and I read solely from a computer or an e-reader, I wonder what amount of modeling would be lost.  Eliot would no longer observe us reading.  Or, more accurately, he wouldn’t know if we were reading, checking email, doing work, etc.

When it comes to parenting I’m of the opinion that habits are as much caught as taught.  If I want my son to read and enjoy the benefits of reading, it will be important that he see his mother and me reading.  Is this possible without books?

Second, my grandfather.  I have on my shelves several books that belonged to my dad’s dad, my Grandpa Winston, including Thoreau, Sandburg’s Lincoln biography, and The Politics of Jesus by John Howard Yoder.  Though it’s been over ten years since his death, there is a sense of his intellect and curiosity that is present in our home because of these books.  Flipping through well-worn pages and noting underlined sections are ways of conversing with and learning from someone I knew and love, but who never got to meet my wife or son.

How would this work in a digital-only world?  Are there ways of passing down treasured digital books that have already been “broken in” by a respected parent or grandparent?

Of course, all of this comes from a biased perspective and I’m open to correction.  To the digital reading enthusiasts: What do you say to my questions about the past and future represented by physical books?

10 thoughts on “In Praise of (Real) Books

  1. I *am* a Luddite, in many ways. I got my first iPod as a gift just a few months ago. I owned a 7 year old desktop computer until last summer. I don’t watch TV, for the most part. Don’t do Netflix, don’t own many movies, don’t want an iPad. So I’m sure I’m even more biased than you, and your comment wasn’t really directed to me.


    My living room is lined with bookcases, all of which are overflowing with “real” books, ones with tattered paper covers and dusty dust jackets, highlighted and underlined textbooks, and journals. Reading is my personal method of choice for relaxing and unplugging from the world. Personally, I can’t see the tangible book ever completely going away. BUT for traveling, for ease-of-use, and for things like textbooks and research? I think a digital reader and/or computer are wonderful tools. I think (I hope) it will eventually be more of a case of both-and than either-or. I hope.

  2. Hi David. I’m guessing you’re Kevin and Linda’s son? If so, your dad used to fly me to and from school in Venezuela back in the day. Anyway, it’s great to see that your son is developing such a love of reading. I think the ink-and-paper kind of book will yet be with us for a very long time for some of the reasons you mention. But ebooks are certainly coming on strong, and my wife and I love them for their transportability and ease of access. I feel as though I’m getting the best of both worlds!

  3. Hi, David,
    I’m your mother’s second cousin (I think) from the Atkinson side. I’ve been mulling over this question as well. I appreciate the e-book for the reasons mentioned, especially in these days of limited baggage. But what a delight it is, once having read a book I have enjoyed, to pass it along to friends and family! And when grandchildren are snuggled up close and we share a story together, there is a peculiar satisfaction in the poring over illustrations and turning pages that cannot be present with an electronic book. My guess is that (real) books will be with us for some time to come!

    1. Hi Valerie- thanks for the comment. Though I don’t have experience personally, I agree that the e-reader must be a convenience while traveling. I do wonder though whether these digital devices will become more commonplace in homes. Time will tell I suppose.

  4. I wonder this myself. As a reader, I love both. There are favorite stories that I love going back to again and again. There are professional books that I mark up and return to regularly. But when I know that a book will be read once or I want to travel with a book, I love my ereader.

    As a teacher, I am hesitant about ereaders. I love this article about the value of a good book curator. While Amazon may recommend books to me based on my history, they can’t begin to compare with a friend who truly knows me. This is what I strive to do for my students.

    But we live in an ever changing world, and I always want to be asking the questions. How can we do this better? Why are doing it this way? There is some much great technology out there, but as teachers and parents we have to be thoughtful about how we incorporate it into our lives. As I move to fifth grade next year, I will be asking a lot of these questions! Thanks for your thoughts!

  5. There are a number of issues in this…one of which are all the books published in the past few centuries which are not available in e-versions but remain well worth reading. If you refuse to consider a book on paper “real” (as some now do), you’re missing a great deal. Many of these are long out of print yet offer great context, detail, anecdote…useful to future writers for research in addition to pleasure for non-professionals.

    I’m the author of two non-fiction books and read widely of others’ work for my own. My first book was about women and guns in America (non-partisan, from both sides of the issue) and I loved reading women’s homesteaders’ diaries from the 19th century. My new book, out last week, also has a terrific cover and jacket copy, all of which were designed to entice readers on paper. Books lose much of their visual charm and appeal on a Nook or Kindle, however light and convenient they are. I love that moment of idly leafing through books in the store, being tempted and buying one or several on the spot.

  6. How precious to see you refer to your grandfather/my brother and his love of books which he shared with you. I absolutely agree that reading books is a joy I hope I can continue to experience all my life. I LOVE TO READ! I enjoy your blog.

  7. What a fun theme this week for your blog! I love reading books to children. I enjoyed reading to my kids and recently started a list of books I want to share with Eliot. Some of my favorite books for children have the most beautiful illustrations. I don’t think you can appreciate the artwork when it is on the computer. Pen and paint strokes as well as colors don’t always look as the illustrator intended when they appear on a computer screen.

    At the preschool where I work, the local librarian comes to the class to read to the kids. The kids sit so still and quite for him. He reads the books with enthusiasm and slowly shows the pages. I can’t imagine the librarian holding up an e-reader and getting the same reaction from the kids. They get excited to see what books he is going to pull out of his library bag.

    Below are just a couple of books I can’t wait to read to Eliot! When I go to garage sales this summer I’ll be looking for these books!

    Something From Nothing by Phoebe Gilman (One of my all time favorites! The illustrations tell two stories in one book)
    Stellaluna and Verdi both by Janell Cannon

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