Reading Habits

Fall in love with paper books again

I was an early adopter of e-books, partly because of my poor eyesight, but mostly because I started reviewing before the anthrax attacks of 2001. The shipping time for the manuscript boxes was extended from four days to forty days due to concerns about package contamination. E-books (which, long ago, were really just document files) provide instant gratification.

At one point, I even considered ditching paper documents entirely in favor of electronic formats. Aside from the instant gratification angle, one doesn’t have to worry about overloading the floor at home with e-books. A person can carry thousands of e-books in their pocket. People can (for me, this is the killer app) adjust the font size. E-books are great, and I’ll defend them to your last breath.

That said, over eight years of writing The James Nicoll Review and nearly 2,300 reviews, and a recent re-divide into role-playing game texts, had the unintended side effect of rediscovering my love for paper books — love. There are many reasons for this. Let’s look at my reasons, starting with purely personal taste and moving on to possibly more general reasons.

Books, as artifacts, are more pleasing to my eyes than e-books. It probably comes down to a situation where my favorite e-reader can’t handle the colors. This affects the cover art. The book cover is designed in color. Some covers may look equally good in black and white, but many (maybe most) don’t.

I find the experience of reading a paper book inherently more enjoyable than an e-book. An e-book can’t provide the weight of a book, the feel of opening it, or even the smell of paper, whether it’s the wonderful aroma of new or old. Plus, I like to know how much of a book is left by touching it.

PDF is a particularly annoying format, especially for RPG manuals with multiple columns. I can have everything fit on the screen but be too small to read, or it can be large enough to be read at the cost of having to scroll up and down over and over again. During the pandemic, I started reading RPG manuals old and new (nothing says “re-examine things that depend on social interaction” like a disaster where social interaction can lead to the most dire consequences) and it really opened my eyes to the heart of the PDF RPG manual unhappy. The Physical RPG Manual is a superior experience in almost every way.

Paper books facilitate object persistence more effectively than e-books. Even with coping mechanisms like Caliber or LibraryThing, it’s easy to forget that you’ve acquired a particular book. Scanning shelves can provide plenty of reminders. Furthermore, perusing bookshelves seems to be a more effective source of serendipity, discovering works related to one’s own interests while looking for other works. (Note: Molly Templeton covers some of this and more in her recent article “The Case for Touching All Books.”)

While you do need a source of lighting to read a paper book, the books themselves don’t drain power. I especially appreciated this during a trip in 2011 when my Kobo died a few days before I got home. As I optimistically left the cord at home, I was stranded in the tropical Hawaiian landscape with no books to read. Disaster! If I discreetly pack a few paperbacks, I never need to look up from my books. The scenery, bah!

Paper books are durable in several ways. I’ve come across files that are only a few decades old, in outdated file formats that are no longer readable by any of the machines I own now. Even before that, I lost files on the floppy due to the performance of the floppy itself. Many of my paperbacks are half a century old, or only vaguely remembered. I have hardcover books from over a hundred years ago. I can easily read them as long as I hold them close enough to my eyes.

(There is a kind of survivorship bias here, which I call “the reason why there are so few Lancer versions in the older books I review.”)

Finally, there are a lot of books that I might want to read that don’t have digital versions. Every time a new medium is introduced, older works pass through a filter, partly because of people’s willingness to convert existing works into the new format, and partly because of institutional barriers to doing so. There are many valuable books that people might want to read that are not available in ebook format. Even if they’re out of print – even if they were printed only once a long, long time ago – the durability of the paper means I’m likely to come across a copy if I search diligently enough in used bookstores (online and in real space) .

Again, I’m a big fan of e-books (besides Satan’s format of choice, PDF), and I also recognize that many readers may default to e-format for reasons other thanpreference (e.g. lack of space or health concerns) rather than physical books (which make handling or reading paper books difficult); I know my experience and personal preference doesn’t apply in all situations. But for me, print books do some things better than e-books, which is why there will always be a place in my library.

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