The digital is on a ceaseless march, trampling the physical underfoot: in the lives of many, Netflix has replaced DVDs, email has replaced letters, and computer memory has replaced photographic film. Yet one cultural medium, the book, stubbornly resists the beating drums of the digitisers.
Why are there still books on our shelves? For superficially, e-readers are more convenient than print books. E-books are cheaper and obtainable more quickly, and a library of thousands of books can be held in the palm of the hand. Nor are there any technical problems with leading e-readers, whose screens successfully mimic the printed page. In fact, when Amazon released the Kindle in 2008, e-books were poised to take over.
But a walk in 2019 past any one of Cambridge’s 105 libraries, brimming with traditional, ink-on-paper print matter and continually acquiring more of it, should provide sufficient evidence that books are quite alive. This pattern is not restricted to the academic niche, with sales of both e-readers and e-books stagnating. Perhaps most damningly, however, e-book publishing remains an appendage of the traditional publishing industry; Amazon may boast a large selection of literature self-published for the Kindle, but readers looking for anything more profound than cheap romance with enticing images of muscular males on the cover are forced to purchase from publishers who make their collection available in print as well as in electronic form. Clearly, there is something about physical books that digital screens cannot replace.
Something is lost in moving from a line of books on a shelf with their myriad colours, bindings, and sizes to a line of titles on a screen. For the physical form of a book gives it character. Take, say, a Cambridge Concise History. Note the cover — a uniform gloss. No stylish matte here or, worse still, ridges of matte on gloss. Leave that to the publishers of popular histories. The pages are quite thick, white, with wide margins. In short, the tome exudes erudition. Yet is succeeds in being approachable at the same time. The cover is quite small and brightly coloured, while the paperback binding flexes enticingly. Placed next to Biochemistry by Stryer et al., a book with an entirely different personality, the juxtaposition is evident. The presence of the huge volume, with its blue cloth-bound hardback cover and large pages filled with small text, is palpable. One glance is enough to surmise: erudition, certainly, but not approachable. On a screen, all this character, conveyed without reading a single word, is homogenised to produce a listing with a title, an author, and an image of the cover, at best. Much in the experience of the reader as book-chooser, if not the reader as reader, is lost.
Judging a book by its cover may be an advantage conferred by print books, but what of the classics? Surely, Tolstoy stands above the quality of the binding that encloses his work and reminds us not to over-aestheticise the volumes on our shelves. Tolstoy, even in the cheapest paperback edition, on yellow or grey paper, with narrow margins, is still Tolstoy. The bad paper does not degrade his intricate plots and his brilliant thoughts. Yet paper editions of classics remain popular despite the often free availability of these brilliant thoughts online. In part, of course, paper editions provide new translations and better annotations, but this is frequently not the case; the very successful Wordsworth editions, for example, have no commentary and reprint old translations. Is it too daring to therefore suggest that we have a sentimental attachment to print matter that stems from the very experience of reading? For reading even the cheapest paperback engages the senses more than moving the eyes across a screen and pressing a button. Books have a distinctive smell: they smell of paper when new, gradually lose this scent and acquire a musty, mature one with age. Books also have a texture determined by their function: dictionary pages are thin and crinkle when turned, while those of an art book are thick and spring back. It is these extra-textual aspects that contribute to the pleasure of reading a newly acquired book: print-joy. Print-joy is just one facet of the very human allure of physical objects over their digital counterparts (the original nib-joy described by Maurice Richardson is another). For there is something unavoidably transient about anything digital, easily altered, doctored, or deleted.
Quite possibly, all this is romantic nonsense, a misunderstanding of the continued existence of print. Perhaps the popularity of physical books is best explained by some free market mechanism. Perhaps there is a lack of publishers willing to experiment in the digital sphere, leading to no high-quality literature that cannot be purchased in print, or reading e-books is just inconvenient due to the difficulty of annotating them or flicking through pages to find a section, or e-readers receive less media coverage than other devices and Amazon and its competitors simply need to market more. But it seems that it may take a lot of marketing to displace humanity’s ingrained love of print-joy.