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?