Like most people today, I use technology both for entertainment and to help me navigate my everyday life from tracking my budget to getting directions to a new park to recording funny things my toddler does. It’s hard for me to imagine a life without smartphones or Wi-Fi, or even to remember what it was like when my family still had a dial-up connection and I had to actually call friends for homework help.
As much as I’ve embraced technology, there are still a few areas of my life where I have staunchly refused to accept the technological counterpart to a traditional pastime. Reading physical, printed books is a big one.
I have to admit that a few years ago—living in a city where I was surrounded by Kindles and e-books of all kinds—I was worried about the future of printed books. Would they someday face the same fate as newspapers, handwritten letters, or cassette tapes? Would they become merely a relic of the old days, something to decorate our shelves and homes with but not to actually read?
Thankfully, what I’ve come to realize is that books aren’t going anywhere. In fact, a 2018 study confirms that reading from printed books is still an overwhelmingly popular option for readers. There will always be a very strong case for reading from physical books—here are just a few of the benefits.
It’s good for your physical and mental health.
It’s true that digital books and especially audiobooks have greatly increased in popularity recently, and I don’t think that this is a bad thing. There is no denying the practicality of being able to listen to an audiobook while on the go. They allow people to enjoy literature while driving, running, or even folding laundry. I also know several people who were not “readers” until they started reading on digital devices—they simply find it more convenient, especially on their daily commutes (more on that in a bit). Anything that gets more people reading is a win.
There are many reasons to be cautious, however, of reading too much from electronic devices. Studies and surveys reveal that reading from Kindles, iPads, and other devices can cause myriad problems, such as eye strain and “screen fatigue,” which can lead to “blurred vision, redness, dryness, and irritation.” Although many people like to use electronic readers at night because they give off enough light to read without keeping one’s partner awake, research shows that this artificial screen light affects melatonin production and throws off circadian rhythms, interrupting normal sleep patterns and preventing heavy, restorative sleep. This sleep prevention, in turn, can cause “an increase in stress and depressive symptoms,” which is certainly not something to take lightly.
Physical books don’t have these drawbacks. And this is a good thing because reading is an extremely healthy habit: reading actually helps one fall asleep at night (and sleep better through the night) and reduces stress. Reading is overall good for the brain because it keeps one’s brain actively stimulated, enhances one’s social skills and vocabulary, and improves memory and thinking skills. Research indicates that reading slows the deterioration of one’s memory, and it’s even possible that it helps you live a longer life.
These benefits might be mitigated when it comes to reading from screens. Research shows that those who read from screens absorb less of what they read than those who read from books. People actually use different parts of their brain when reading from paper books or from screens; as this article puts it, “The more you read on screens, the more your mind shifts towards ‘non-linear’ reading—a practice that involves things like skimming a screen or having your eyes dart around a web page.” Thus, reading from a physical book increases comprehension, accuracy, and speed. The scrolling that is necessary when reading from a screen has unavoidable negative impacts, as this small action diverts one’s attention and constantly requires that your eyes re-focus.
Reading physical books brings people together.
I’ll never forget reading my massive, beat-up copy of The Count of Monte Cristo on the subway to and from my job in Manhattan after college. I watched one woman eye me apprehensively one busy, crowded morning as I stood above her, clinging to the overhead railing with one hand and precariously clutching my 1,276-page book with my other hand. I struggled to focus on the story as the subway car screeched forward and backward again, and strangers elbowed my sides and reached across me for a grip at the metal bar. This particular woman, sitting bent over her Kindle, was clearly concerned that at any moment, I would lose my slippery grip on The Count and drop it on her head.
However, when I did not drop it on her, she decided to share with me at the end of our commute that she, too, had read this book at one point in her life, and though she couldn’t remember much of the story itself, she did remember that it was one of the greatest books she had ever read. I like to imagine that she started re-reading it that very night due to our short but sweet conversation (or near-death experience, depending on your viewpoint).
The thing is, electronic reading devices, whether Kindles, Nooks, iPads, or phones, are unapologetically discreet. You can’t tell what book someone is reading from his or her electronic device; you can tell by a book spine or cover. I’ve had numerous wonderful conversations with complete strangers that were initiated due to one of us noticing the other’s book. Perhaps it is the dreamer in me talking, but I find it beautiful—almost romantic—when two strangers start a conversation about a book. I believe our world needs more of these conversations.
It makes the reading experience particularly enjoyable.
I know that I am not the only person who experiences immense pleasure feeling the pages I’ve completed in a book grazing my fingers. Especially when reading a large book, the ability to physically see the progress made in a book gives one a great sense of accomplishment and motivation to continue reading and finish it.
In addition, I sometimes read too quickly and forget small but important plot details (who is this character related to again?), and I love how easy it is to flip back and find the part of the book I’m looking for without losing my current place—something that is not so easy to do when you have to scroll or click back to a different chapter on your electronic reading device.
The tactile experience of holding a physical book in one’s hands not only makes the reading experience more real but the look and the feel of the book stimulate the senses and make for an overall more enjoyable experience. Holding a book truly “sparks joy” for me. And while I recognize that this is not the case for everyone with every book, there is no denying the appeal of breathing in that “old book smell” at a used bookstore or even just looking at a beautiful shelf of books.
There are simply too many aspects of the reading experience that electronic readers cannot replicate. I feel totally immersed in a book when I’m holding it in my hands in a way that I do not when I’m listening to it or reading it on a screen. There are so many distractions with audiobooks and electronic books—the temptation to multi-task is too strong. This may not be the case for everyone, but it has been my experience.
The many benefits of reading good old-fashioned physical books have relieved my fear that technology might take my books away from me. No— printed books are definitely here to stay. There is nothing quite like a book to inspire, instruct, and encourage, and I can say with confidence that reading has truly made me a better person. Here’s to keeping our libraries thriving, our bookshelves full, and our hands occupied with more life-changing books.
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