Is the future of books digital?

After arriving about six hours early for a flight and with my kindle already dead, I found myself doing something I’d never do out in the outside world: slowly and curiously browsing the shelves of WHSmith.

If it wasn’t strange enough to be in an airport without frantically rushing through it, picking up a random book and diving into it without first scouring reviews and knowing for definite it had hundreds of five-star ratings felt like an entirely alien experience.

I mean, I can actually skim the contents of a book, even read a chapter or two, and come to my own conclusion about it before buying it, all without the help of Goodreads or the opinions of some stuffy critics? Who knew?

It only got stranger from there. A good hour passed with me perched in the aisle like a lost old man, as if transfixed by the ancient act of physically holding words and turning pages with my hands.

Naturally, this got me wondering. Is there actually something to reading books in their physical form as opposed to their digital counterparts? Or was I just incredibly bored and without my kindle charger in an airport, and willing to do anything to make the time pass quicker?

This question is at the centre of an ongoing debate, spearheaded by traditional book lovers who adore things like the feel of paper and the nostalgia of musty stacks of old books.

All that stuff is great, and there’s no doubt something nice about reading a real book. But today, you can carry and read an unlimited number of books on your Kindle, tablet, smartphone, laptop, or even smartwatches if you desire. How does such an intangible “nice” feeling compare to the portability and convenience of digital readers? Can it even come close?

Rather than comparing the obvious differences — devices are good for standing on a packed subway and hiding the sleezy novel you’re reading, books don’t need charging or switched off for take-off and landing — here I’m going to look at the few of the more philosophical aspects of reading, with the goal of discovering if our noses won’t be getting stuck in ever more advanced devices but back in good old-fashioned printed books.

Every story needs a beginning and an end

Every story takes up a certain amount of space in the world. This is clear when you have a library full of weighty hardbacks, but when you store them on one device, you can literally have millions of books at your fingertips and taking up nothing more than the space of a short story.

Thus, when stories are stored digitally, it’s not easy to see how they translate into time. Just by looking at a physical book, you get an idea of how long it’s going to take you to read. On an ereader, you do get precise metrics like reading times and what percentage of the way you are through, but they’re still poor substitutes for the physical feedback of moving through sheets of chapters and edging ever closer to that satisfying back cover.

What this also means is that the time and space of a book exists in a closed-loop. When you dogear a page of a book and close it for years, it doesn’t follow you around as the story is contained in that space and that space only. In contrast, it’s much easier to start and forget a book on an e-reader as the implications on your resources are apparently very few. And when you do this, it can lead to the accumulation of unfinished books, which can each have an invisible tax on your mental resources as you have more and more open plots and storylines crying to be resolved. Not least because you are being denied the all-important sense of accomplishment and closure when you do finally get to the end — an as crucial part of a book as the beginning — and finish the damn thing.

Reading as consumption and experience

If the point of reading was convenience, there wouldn’t even be a debate to have. Thanks to things like universal libraries, page display options, and touchscreens, digital devices make reading books much faster, more accessible, and easier than a physical book ever could be.

This approach to reading is well suited for things like reports and work emails — in other words, information that just needs to be conveyed as quickly as effortlessly as possible. But as this is far from the point of reading real books like novels or autobiographies, this approach can work against you by fostering a time-saving mentality and encouraging habits like multitasking and skimming.

When all your reading is done in one place, this divide between reading as consumption and reading as an experience can become pretty blurry. Physical books can work as physical markers for shifting your mindset before you even open the cover; ereaders or phones, however, are tied to everything from your calendar to your to do list, and so can take much longer for you to get into the book and thus achieve the same effect.

This difference has been studied by Maryanne Wolf, author of Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in the Digital World. She found that text in print actually forces your mind to slow down. The result is there’s more time for processes like critical thinking to come online and for you to cultivate things like empathy and perspective, which allow you to better absorb and retain details of a text.

Wolf also found that the opposite is true when reading digitally. The nature of digital devices makes you want to read faster, and so they’re not so complementary to the subtle and time-intensive shifts that you would want from a good book.

For me, the benefits of “real” books are obvious, particularly when it comes to reading fiction and stories. But it still might take a few more long waits in airports to get me to give up my Kindle.


Joe Hunt is a freelance writer from the North of England. Connect with him on LinkedIn and find more articles on work, technology, meditation, and everything in between.