Why Paper Beats a Screen

Print hasn’t just survived the e-book apocalypse — it’s thriving (and for good reason).

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Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

On a rusty ferry steaming towards the southern tip of Lake Malawi, I managed to crack my Kindle’s screen — accidentally elbowing it as I climbed up to standing from sitting. I was bereft but not because I was terribly fond of it — indeed, in the five years I’d had it, I had barely used it. No, I was bereft because I was stuck on board for at least another 24 hours without anything (except for an old British GQ) to read. I kept on toggling the buttons, hoping that Lolita or the Michela Wrong book I’d been so excited to read would miraculously appear. They didn’t — the screen remained a mess.

Bereavement had given way to crabbiness (and slight panic) by the time we reached our destination. I was beached on a desert island (well, almost) with nothing to read. I scrounged the meagre shelf of abandoned paperbacks, attempting Stieg Larsson and then Jeffrey Archer, quickly bored and unimpressed by them both.

When we got to Blantyre, I made a beeline to its best bookshop, happily poring over titles for hours, weighing up what I should read on the bus back to Johannesburg. In the end I managed to narrow my choice to two books (White Mischief and Dead Aid, if you must know), forking out a hefty premium for them both — but that was OK, I could breathe again: I had something to read.

It took me a whole year to replace my new Kindle. To be fair, one of the reasons why I didn’t miss it very much is because I’ve often received review hard copies from publishers. But, more than that though, I also just simply far prefer reading ink on paper.

One of The Guardian’s journalists compares reading your favourite novel on e-book to sucking vintage wine through a straw. I couldn’t agree more. The act of reading a physical book exudes a magic that an e-reader simply cannot recreate.

I love its tactile qualities, how each has a slightly different smell. Then there’s the comforting heft of the thing in your lap, the quiet satisfaction of a turning a page, of shutting it with a bookmark in place when you’re done for the night. Printed books aren’t indestructible, but they’re pretty resilient. If you drop one (or elbow it like I did), it’s likely to be unscathed. It might even survive a brief encounter with a pool if you put it in the sun immediately afterwards. To function, they’re not reliant on batteries that can go flat. The text is easier to read. And their physicality, the way they take up space, means they can serve as mini (and often beautifully designed) monuments: sitting on your shelf they remind you either of the stories they contain, or of the time in which you were reading them.

So why did I get a new Kindle then? Because it’s darn useful when travelling to have a single slim-line object containing lots of titles, as opposed to a stash heavier than Pilgrim’s burden that you have to lug around on planes and buses. There is something too to be said for the immediacy with which you can purchase a new title — particularly if it’s one that your local bookshop might not have in stock.

So, for me, how I read is not about either/or; it’s about context. I’ll use the Kindle when I’m on the go, but I’ll always prefer paper. I’m far from being alone in this. Some might think it’s a generational thing: that older people haven’t adapted to newer technologies. They’re wrong: the allure of paper cuts across generations — indeed, research by Nielsen shows that 75% of British kids prefer proper books, with 35% going so far as to shun digital ones entirely.

Five years or so ago, dramatic headlines were heralding the end of paper books. A surge in the sales of e-readers and e-books (and the closure of many bookshops, including the gargantuan US chain Borders) seemed to bear this out.

Today it’s looking rather different. E-book sales have stagnated. In 2015, sales in the UK shrank by 1.6% compared to the previous year — the first drop in seven years (according to the Publishers Association) while print sales rose. In the same year, Waterstones, the major UK book retailer, removed e-readers from most its stores (after its MD, James Daunt, claimed they were “getting virtually no sales”), making way for more physical books.

“People talked about the demise of physical books as if it was only a matter of time, but even 50 to 100 years from now, print will be a big chunk of our business,” Markus Dohle, the CEO of Penguin Random House, told the New York Times back in 2015. Solid growth since then is bearing out his prediction.

In the US, more than one billion paperbacks were sold in 2017 out of the estimated 2.7 billion books sold according to the Association of American Publishers according to this pithy summary by Publishing Perspectives.

And, according to Observer:

E-book sales have slipped by 3.9 percent so far this year [the first three quarters of 2018], according to data from the Association of American Publishers, while hardback and paperback book sales grew by 6.2 percent and 2.2 percent, respectively. During the first nine months of 2018, hardback and paperback sales generated nearly $4 billion combined; comparatively, e-books only raked in $770.9 million.

For my fellow lovers of the printed word, that’s excellent news.

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