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E-Readers Are Rock Stars, but My Heart Belongs to Hardcovers

3 years ago
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For my mother's 79th birthday later this month, her four children are going to give her an e-reader. We have yet to decide which one to give her, but she's very keen to join this trend. As a frequent traveler, and avid reader, she finds that she's always lugging 12 hard-cover books wherever she goes (often London to visit me!). So she'd like to lighten her load. Apparently, several of her friends already have e-readers and they are all thrilled with them.

I have mixed feelings about this present. On the one hand, as someone who -- by her own admission -- barely has running water and electricity, my mother is not exactly what you'd call techno-savvy. So there is a dragging-her-into-the-21st century quality to this gift, which, as someone who spends all day online, I welcome with open arms.

On the other hand, I'm also wary of the onslaught of e-readers. I worry about what happens to our society when we no longer read those great artifacts of the 20th century: books.

To that end, here are five reasons why I think it's important to keep reading books:

1. Books are good for our brains. This argument has been getting a lot of play lately. It was first popularized in an essay by Nicholas Carr in The Atlantic and is now out in a book titled "The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains." Carr argues that the Internet has fundamentally changed the way that our brains work. Specifically, our capacity for sustained, concentrated thought (of the sort required to read, say, "War and Peace") has been demolished by the constant browsing, skimming, surfing characteristic of the Web, with deleterious effects on both memory and reading. While we may -- in the words of Roger Ebert -- still enjoy the "frisson" that comes from those brief, intense moments of reaction or recognition that we all experience regularly on the Web, we are slowly chipping away at our imaginative powers. And it is precisely that sort of non-instrumental, contemplative thought that is best furnished, perhaps uniquely so, by reading books.

2. Books are good for our children's brains. Of course, just because you read books in an e-reader doesn't mean that you necessarily lose access to your imaginative thought process. It's just that you run a greater risk of doing so (if said object also provides access to your e-mail, Twitter and Facebook accounts, which many e-readers do.) But there's another reason that having actual books lying around is a good thing: New research highlighted by Salon's Laura Miller shows that book owners have smarter kids. According to a study recently published in the journal Research in Social Stratification and Mobility, for example, children growing up in homes with many books get three years more schooling than children from bookless homes, independent of their parents' education, occupation, and class. Wow.

3. Books keep libraries open. I recently made an impassioned appeal for why libraries are good things. In brief, I argued that libraries enhance children's learning, they provide crucial social skills and they are instrumental for democracy. If we do away with books, we will gradually lose the library as a pivotal educational and cultural resource.

4. Books facilitate book groups. On a much smaller scale, you could also argue that the rise of the e-reader portends the death of book clubs (which themselves are increasingly moving online). Again, there's no logical reason that it has to play out this way. You could certainly read your book in Kindle then go discuss it in person. And I've got nothing against virtual book groups as a way of building community. But there's something wonderful about sitting down in a small group and talking about books -- sometimes thumbing through the actual pages together. My fear is that as books become disembodied from social settings, like libraries and book clubs, they'll become just one more thing to "flip to" -- like the weather or our Twitter updates -- rather than the basis for sustained interrogation and discussion.

5. Books enhance the social value of reading. Which brings us to what Verlyn Klinkenborg recently referred to on the New York Times op-ed page as the "social value of reading." As Klinkenborg notes, the entire impulse behind something like Amazon's Kindle is that you cannot read a book unless you own it first. There's a creeping commercialization of reading that kicks in once you start using an e-reader that cuts against the notion of the book as part and parcel of the public sphere. One of the reasons we need libraries (and book clubs) is because -- in providing shared access to books, they open up the possibility of a body of common knowledge and a collective discourse around that knowledge. Kill off book reading and you slowly chip away at that common framework.

In a world as fragmented as the one we live in, I'm not sure we can afford to do that.

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Filed Under: Woman Up, Culture

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19 Comments

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blkstar107

Huh, I think it's easy to take research at face value - for example, the idea that having more books in the home leads to smarter kids. People with more books probably spend more time reading - to their children and to themselves. Children who see their parents and family members reading or more likely to read. As an educator, I encourage parents to model a reading rich environment. So until someone does a study that doesn't simply conclude a causal relationship but rather measures reading habits in general (which I'm sure there are) using e-readers, we can't say for sure e-readers are detrimental. I also find that having a Kindle allows me to share with my friends - a friend of mine recently asked me to read with him an Oliver Goldsmith book. Now I live in Guatemala, and he in San Francisco, and an e-book is what actually made it possible. Now what I do agree with is the unfortunate commercialization of books (however, thousands of good books are available for free or less than a couple dollars). I'm sure that soon, or one day in the near future, we'll be able to trade and rent out ebooks...

October 24 2010 at 6:45 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Tony

AHA! I have no choice but to buy more books now!

June 14 2010 at 12:04 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
gobluespartyon

I like the real thing hard cover book very interesting article and I agree with it 100%. I will get E-Reader some day when hard cover books become a thing of the pass.

June 13 2010 at 1:38 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
shistera

Well I'm a NOOK owner and I can tell you that I read twice as much as I used to, and before buying the nook I read ALOT so its practically in my face all the time. The reason why my parents got me the nook was because they didnt want me wasting up to $15 a book in bookstores. So they got me the barnes and noble NOOK and now I dont waste more then $9 for a book. Yes it does limit social interaction, but for some its a good thing because all they want is to sit in a comfy chair and read a book in silence.

June 13 2010 at 11:19 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
conservgirl8

I think we all agree that reading books will remain a very important activity in our daily lives, my library is testament to that, but, having the e-readers will be a good thing too. Must we continually over analyze everything?

June 13 2010 at 11:00 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
laurajan11

I am also an avid reader with hundreds of books that I want to donate but can't bring myself to get rid of. I love hardcovers and I feel I will miss actually holding and having a book. I know I am going to give in to technology eventually but I'm going kicking and screaming.

June 13 2010 at 10:58 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
Becky

Great observations...a lot to think about. I find myself partial to actual books, too, and it was great to see the analysis you provided. Thanks for a thought provoking read!

June 13 2010 at 10:25 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
zhanghaoqqa

As an avid reader myself, I can tell you that I don't agree with your article. I have an extensive home library of books but I have also purchased the Kindle and I am here to tell you that it is every bit as satisfying as reading a 'real' book and as for the effect on children I can say the both my son and daughter have Kindles. My daughter has always liked to read but my son is pretty active so reading was never high on his list. Since he saved for (learning about financial responsibility) and purchased his own Kindle, he reads about 10 times more than he used to. In the last six months alone he has read three different book series of books with more than 400 pgs a piece. He is only ten years old. So it upsets me when I see articles like yours claiming that ereaders aren't as good as the 'real' thing. We share our books on the Kindles the same as we do with the books on our shelves. I have seen a lot of good come from owning our ereaders and I think people should keep an open mind instead of always pointing out derogatory things./???

June 13 2010 at 9:29 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Angyl

As an avid reader myself, I can tell you that I don't agree with your article. I have an extensive home library of books but I have also purchased the Kindle and I am here to tell you that it is every bit as satisfying as reading a 'real' book and as for the effect on children I can say the both my son and daughter have Kindles. My daughter has always liked to read but my son is pretty active so reading was never high on his list. Since he saved for (learning about financial responsibility) and purchased his own Kindle, he reads about 10 times more than he used to. In the last six months alone he has read three different book series of books with more than 400 pgs a piece. He is only ten years old. So it upsets me when I see articles like yours claiming that ereaders aren't as good as the 'real' thing. We share our books on the Kindles the same as we do with the books on our shelves. I have seen a lot of good come from owning our ereaders and I think people should keep an open mind instead of always pointing out derogatory things.

June 13 2010 at 12:37 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

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