Will That Be Paper or Plastic?: How We Read Now

Posted by Alex Herman, Art Curator and Nonfiction Reader for Issue 4.1

I remember very vividly the thrill of dragging my mother into bookstores as a kid. It didn’t matter if it was the corner shop in the mall or the Borders bookstore two towns over, if there were books in the window, we had to stop there. I’d spend forever perusing the shelves, my fingers dancing over the spines, yearning for a new story, and, if I was lucky, finding one my mother would let me take home.

Nowadays, though, I’m lucky if I can even find a store.

It’s undeniable that we are now smack dab in the middle of the digital age. Between cell phones, laptops, and tablets, everyone seems to begandy blog (1) plugged into one device or another at any given time. As a result bookstores, and by extent, printed books, have seemingly fallen to the wayside in favor of their digital counterparts. But are these ebooks really as superior as sellers like to claim? Is it possible that we, in our lifetimes, could witness something as timeless as printed books go completely obsolete?

Not if I can help it.

When it comes to size and storage, ebooks clearly reign over printed ones. The average novel is typically two hundred fifty pages plus, and God help you if you decided to lug around any of the Game of Thrones or latter Harry Potter books, each of which is well over twice that size. The average Kindle or Nook, on the other hand, weighs less than half a pound and can hold anywhere from 1,500 to 3,000 titles each — more than you could ever conceivably fit on one shelf. And while this might be bad news for book collectors, for people on the move or students, it’s a godsend.

When it comes to price, things get a little greyer. While the actual ebooks themselves tend to be cheaper — or even free, in the case of some of the classics (college students, rejoice!) — the price of the e-reader is what really gets you in the end. Depending on the model, you could be shelling out close to two hundred bucks for the latest e-reader before you even get to buy your first ebook. If you can get past the initial sticker shock though, you’ll actually save money buying the slightly cheaper ebooks.

One of the few areas where printed books beat digital is in lifespan. You never have to worry about your book running out of battery on you or about fishing around for your cable charger or an ever elusive open outlet as you would with a tablet. In the long run, if properly treated, printed books can last for generations, whereas Nooks and Kindle will only last a few years before their batteries give out – or until you accidentally drop it on the floor.

It would seem that digital books might be the final nail in the coffin of traditionally printed books. We’re living in a world where the cost of paper is going nowhere but up and our patience for delayed gratification is going nowhere but down. The death of the printed word seems nigh.

But is it?

According to The Washington Post and The Guardian, maybe not.

Millennials, as it turns out, unanimously prefer printed books to their digital cousins. A bit ironic coming from the generation notorious for being codependent on technology. When asked, they listed everything from finding printed pages easier to focus on to liking the feel of books in their hands better than tablets – because let’s face it, nothing feels or smells better than a freshly opened book. As of last year, printed books were still outselling digital ones, if only marginally, and seemed to even be making a comeback in some countries. Whether or not this trend will continue with the next generation (one which wasn’t raised exclusively on printed books) is hard to say.

They say starting a personal library is the sanest form of hoarding, whether that be by filling up your Kindle with stories or by lining your bedroom walls with bookshelf after bookshelf. Ebooks may very well be the future of reading, reducing printed editions to nothing more than cherished collectors’ items, but I don’t think that day is coming for many many years. Until that day, we say, bring us your annotated, your worn out, and your dog-eared, your 900 page literary bricks and your novellas. So long as publishers keep printing, we’ll be waiting to devour every word.

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