The Character of Books

When I started reading in the late 1970s, all books were on paper. There were hardcover books, and paperbacks. There were trade paperbacks, and an occasionally rare edition. But they were all paper.

I began keeping a list of the books I read in 1996. Even then, it wasn’t until my 408th book in June of 2009, thirteen years after I started the list, that I read my first e-book, Polaris by Jack McDevitt. Jump ahead another four years to February 2013, and that’s when I listened to my first audiobook, Misery by Stephen King.

It seems to me that each form of book has its own character, and that there are tradeoffs one has to live with when choosing a format.

The character of audiobooks

These days, the vast majority of the books I read are audiobooks. (I use the term “read” for audiobooks as a shorthand. I’ve discussed my thoughts on reading vs. listening to audiobooks elsewhere.) Of the 823 books I’ve finished since 1996, 282 of them (34%) are audiobooks. Although I was skeptical about audiobooks for a long time before I tried them, I enjoy them today for two main reasons:

  1. I can read more with an audiobook. I can read at times that I would not be able to read a paper or e-book: commuting to work, working out, walking in the park, doing chores around the house. Since I started listening to audiobooks in 2013, I have steadily increased the speed at which I listen to books. These days 1.5x speed sounds perfectly normal to me, and I’ve read quite a few books recently at 1.75x speed.

  2. The narration often adds a dimension that just isn’t there on paper. This is particularly true in fiction, although I’ve experienced it in nonfiction books as well.

The character of e-books

I’d say my least favorite way to read a book is as an e-book. I’ve read only 58 e-books since that first one in June 2009. They are my format of last resort. I stare at a screen enough these days, and I find myself tiring out faster when reading an e-book than reading a book on paper. There is something cold about an e-book that I can’t quite put my finger on. You can’t interact with an e-book in the same way you can with a paper book.

This goes for magazines as well. A number of the magazines I subscribe to offer digital access, but the digital versions can’t really compare to the print version. National Geographic is a good example. As beautiful as the interface is in digital format, I prefer to read the printed issues.

E-books have two advantages over paper books: portability and size. There is no such thing as a stack of e-books. That’s great for travel, but sad when I consider how much I enjoy browsing my bookshelves, or stacks of books on my desk or nightstand. E-books are also more portable than paper. I can read an e-book on my Kindle device, and if I forget that device, I can always pull the book up on my phone.

But the coldness remains. Somehow, an e-book always feels like cheating to me, a feeling I don’t have when listening to an audiobook.

The character of paper books

Despite my love of audiobooks for allowing me to read more, there is something about the character of a paper book that can’t be replicated in a digital medium. Sometimes, I will listen to an audiobook and follow along in the paper book. I did this recently while re-reading It by Stephen King. I had a thick paperback copy that was relatively untouched when I started. Just riffling the pages, and smelling the accumulated scents of the book was an olfactory delight impossible to duplicate in digital media. I love the smell of books, especially used books. I love the smell of book stores. It adds character to a book that you just can’t get from an audiobook and certainly not from an e-book.

It by Stephen King

Then there is the tactile sensations, the feeling of the pages. The copy of It I was reading had tissue thin paper very smooth to the touch. This spine of the book was stiff when I started, and ridged with a geological record of my journey by the time I finished. Those tactile qualities are absent from audiobooks.

As I read, I often highlight passages, and write in the margins. I make the book mine. Audiobooks are terrible for this. You can make “clips” but the mechanism to do this is clumsy and awkward, and virtually useless. E-books have done a better job with highlighting, but the highlights look too antiseptic, and the notes are hidden from the page. I would like it much better if you could mark up an e-book page free-form, they way I mark up paper pages. Sometimes I’ll underline a few lines. Sometimes I’ll circle an entire passage. Other times I’ll write in the margins. I want to be able to see these at a glance as I flip through a book. You just can’t do this in audiobooks, or e-books.

My desire to read as much as I can keeps me using audiobooks, although I sometimes listen along with a paper copy that I can markup. I’ve come to look forward to some narrators as much as I do the authors. But my first love is paper. The smell of the pages, their texture, the sound they make when you riffle through them, and the markups (mine, or in the case of used books, sometime someone else’s) brings a character to an individual copy that makes each one unique.


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