Shea's Demesne


The Strangeness of Romanticising Physical Books; The E-Reader Question

3 August 2023

Many people refuse to own or read on an e-reader; they see it as impure. They romanticise physical books, as if the pleasure of reading is derived from the tactile experience, or from its purchase; and, funnily enough (in my experience), this sentiment almost exclusively comes from people who don't often read despite the claimed desire to. Justifications for this attitude is usually along the lines of "I just like reading from an actual book", or something about reading on an e-reader not being proper reading (usually citing some nonsense about how the ability to retain information is diminished; or something about how our ancestors did not read this way, and therefore it is impure), or a justification stemming from consumerist habits and the desire to own stuff (books are not Funko-pops by the way). There is no good reason to be categorically against it.

Yes, I prefer physical books. Physical books are far easier to annotate in; it's easier to compare passages from two physical books than it is for e-readers. I think it's important to have a personal library, and physical books are a handsome addition to a home; physical books are in many ways more resilient to censorship and print cannot be retrospectively altered to conform with the zeitgeist. None of this detracts from, or is inconsistent with, also owning and using an e-reader.

For a start do you think that Locke, Kant or Aquinas would shun the knowledge that could be gained from reading on an e-reader merely because it came from an e-reader? Do you think they care about the "purity" of reading from the physical text? No; they would all own one because it is too convenient to ignore. You can have a library in your pocket. In conjunction with the Internet, a good portion of the literature of the world is immediately accessible. If your philosophy justifies copywrite infringement, you can have these books for free. And when it comes to novels, especially those read purely for enjoyment, it's not like you're going to be annotating or doing an intertextual reading of them anyway; the experience is identical in print as it is on an e-ereader (or even superior if you're travelling or it's dark).

Granted, I understand concerns about eyestrain with e-readers. But e-ink renders text in such a way which is indistinguishable, both in terms of eyestrain and generally, from physical books. The backlight in most models do not shine directly at you; and, in any case, you can choose not to use it. Eyestrain is no reason to dismiss e-readers.

I use my e-reader in conjunction with my physical library. Here's my approach: generally, I prefer to read a book physically, especially if it's non-fiction; however, if I don't want to wait to go out and buy a book, or it's not easily purchasable, I will download it and begin reading it, switching to my physical edition when it comes in; sometimes, I want to read a book, but I don't necessary want to own it, so I will get it in ebook form; other times, I'm not sure if I want to own a book, and will read it on my e-reader as a sort of trial; if I'm travelling, I will generally read a book on the e-reader even if I have it physically.

If you get an e-reader, you will read more. This romanticising of physical books to such an extent where you refuse to read any other way is bizarre. It is an arbitrary barrier you place on yourself as an excuse to read less.

Postscript: you may think that I've created a strawman; that no-one really has this attitude and the people that I speak about just have a strong preference for physical books. I assure you: I have met multiple people with these views, and it is a common view online.