To Read, or Not to Read

June 1, 2021 Updated: June 1, 2021

The quality of reading is closely connected to the quality of the thing read—both the written material and the object that presents the writing. In other words, there is an element brought to the reading experience as a whole by a good volume, with fair print, crisp pages, and a sturdy cover. But the book, especially in its most traditional forms, is a thing threatened in the age of screens.

The question of book or Nook, of novel or Kindle, of ink or e-ink, is a real question these days. To read, or not to read, is the question, however. The dichotomy is based upon the difference between the physical and digital experience of reading—and it’s a difference that can make all the difference.

From Paper to Plasma

Despite how individual judgments may lean, screens are by general judgment convenient, and therefore the tablet is becoming a trendy way to read. While its convenience hasn’t statistically caused an increase in reading books, it’s making physical books a less-common commodity. Of all the endangered things in the modern world, the book seems to be getting rather short shrift.

The shift from paper to plasma can compromise the literary and educational experience of young people, especially those who are already compromised by screens. The reasons aren’t difficult to grasp. Nothing compares to the feel and smell and weight of a proper book. A book is reliable, tactile, and, well, real. It’s proportioned to the human body in a way that computers aren’t.

The stuff of the digital realm is by nature mutable. The stuff of a book is permanent, or in any event, enduring. Its printed pages aren’t subject to the whirlwind of copying, pasting, deleting, or remote modification. It’s, in the end, more real because it’s more concrete, more constant, and gives an experience that partakes more fully in reality—a preferable thing in good education and good literature.

But, in any case, why discard the book so summarily? Books haven’t lost any argument, have they? There hasn’t even been an argument. The problem is that technology always seems to get a free pass. Has anyone posed the question, “Are we sure that we as a society want to effectively abolish things like handwriting, chalkboards, encyclopedias, newspapers, library stacks, and, for that matter, the book?” Society takes it for granted that if some new-fangled technology is new-fangled, it must be better.

How We Read

Research on the subject is, as it often is, mixed. Some studies find that digital reading results in less retention. Other studies suggest no discernible difference between a digital or analog experience. But what is clear is that readers aren’t only what they read, but also how they read. And what is more real is the better choice no matter what the data may indicate.

Whoever heard of getting lost in a Kindle? What is the draw, then? Is price the motivating factor? Perhaps, but cheaper isn’t necessarily better. “The Brothers Karamazov” is worth its weight and the space it takes on the shelf. Books need to be taken seriously if they are to be read seriously. They need to be valued, and therefore they should carry value. Or perhaps saving the trees is the reason? It’s no argument either. The earth metals used to make e-readers and tablets aren’t only rare, but also highly toxic. Trees are a renewable resource. The energy that goes into cooling fans and broadband servers isn’t.

A tablet may be fine for a sports update or a news flash, but should it be used for Homer or Shakespeare or Tolkien? The material and the medium should harmonize and bear some proportion to one another. Is there anyone who didn’t feel a sense of solemn and serene accomplishment re-shelving the tome that is “David Copperfield”? Can the same be said for one who reads Dickens’s glorious THE END and then powers down the screen?

What makes “Moby-Dick” great isn’t that it’s compact. It’s great because it holds a cosmos within its covers; and the sheer weight of those pages and the voyage through those sounding furrows is an experience in and of itself. The act of reading a good or great work should reflect in some real way what is at hand. In the end, pages are important, because one can only “smite the sounding furrows,” to borrow a line from Tennyson, if there are actually sounding furrows to smite. Books have a life of their own, and reading becomes a true joy when readers find their way into that life.

Immersion

The physical interaction and engagement of annotation, reference, and even page-turning connect readers to the material through the medium far more than a device’s digital distance. Immersion in a book is essentially different from immersion online, for a lack of focus often accompanies the latter, which is a large reason behind any educational concern in this arena. The constant reminder that navigation is always possible easily hinders focused engagement. Modern personal devices are designed to distract and ensnare users in the web. One could always be doing something else waiting to be done. Email is just a click away. Hyperlinks beckon. There is a nagging, incessant feeling to go faster. To skim. To surf. To scroll.

Whereas the book invites one to stay awhile. To stop. To see. To study. There is never a tweet twittering for attention—just another page to be turned when the time comes. Screen readers, like the rest of their digital counterparts, don’t breed concentration or absorption. The screen world is a flitting, fleeting world. Modern personal devices are designed to distract and ensnare users in the worldwide web. It’s incredible how disconnected our so-called connected society truly is, and such disconnection isn’t conducive to the art and discipline of reading.

True Joy

As a result that is ever spreading, people are losing appreciation for the mystery of the 2,000-year-old medium called the “book,” which may well be part of the current crisis in education and culture in general. The mystery, notwithstanding, is not inappreciable. Books are good. They become like old friends. Books have a life of their own, and reading becomes a true joy when readers find their way into that life. Books interact, inspire, and intrigue—and are free of the frenzy of technology. Timeless literature simply doesn’t sit well, feel well, or read well on a screen. The great and good works were written as books, and books they should be.

Furthermore, when a person takes the time to amass a library, filling rooms and lining walls with books that are known and treasured, that person becomes open to a profound discovery. Over the years, as those books are collected, read, referenced, marked, thumbed, stained, stacked, lent, or even beheld as a body, a deeper education can take place—the lesson of who the person is who assembled those books, what that person believes, values, and loves. Can a digital library of downloaded HTML’s do the same?

Sean Fitzpatrick serves on the faculty of Gregory the Great Academy, a boarding school in Elmhurst, Pa., where he teaches humanities. His writings on education, literature, and culture have appeared in a number of journals including Crisis Magazine, Catholic Exchange, and the Imaginative Conservative.