Physical Books: Old-Fashioned but Sacred

I came across this extremely well-written and profound article on The Millions by Alix Christie, concerning the persistence of physical books in a world of ever-evolving technology. I couldn’t come close to expressing the importance of the printed word in the striking way Christie does, so I highly recommend clicking on over and reading the article. Now I’m going to blog my response and share a few passages.

I studied this book for several years, and have come to think that it has much to tell our age as well. For [The Gutenberg Bible], more than any other book, makes one thing clear: the more we value a text, the more we desire to fix it in the world, to grant it permanence. Today, as we rush headlong into the digital age, it seems to me that a similar tendency can be discerned. For against all expectation, we readers maintain our stubborn attachment to physical books, as though what they contained were somehow sacred.

The concept of books being “sacred” is something that has been buzzing through my mind for years. I might trace it back to the day in second grade when I had to return Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets to the library before I had finished it. But a more recent story comes to mind as well. For Christmas a couple of years ago, I received an interesting gift from my brother, though it was obviously picked out by my mom. It was a hardback copy of The Fault in Our Stars laser-cut into the shape of my first initial.

I tried to hide my horror, honestly I did. But that gift made me so uncomfortable because I knew that the contents of that physical copy were forever corrupted. It could no longer be read. The shock never wore off, either – that book is tucked away in a place where I don’t have to look at it. [Cue a nightmare of books being chopped to pieces before I’ve read them]

The best books give readers a profound aesthetic and intellectual experience, like our 15th century Bible: they are objects of both beauty and permanence.

The painstaking work of craftsmanship thus results in things we can hold and admire. And hidden deep inside this tactile pleasure is the source of its real power. A well-made book, like any well-made thing, exudes a sense of permanence. The better it is made, the longer it will last — perhaps for centuries.

Christie’s argument here is pretty accurate, I think. She mentions the commonly cited “studies” that show higher retention rates for readers of physical books, and offers:

"If a print book can’t offer something more than a cheaply produced paperback, the ebook wins the day. There’s simply no reason to buy it."

I can’t say that I agree with this statement. As a perpetually broke avid reader, paperbacks have incredible appeal to me. Not only are they vastly cheaper than hardback copies, they take up less space and they weigh less. The latter is an important factor for college kids, especially myself now that I’m planning a huge move across the country.

Overall though, this article spoke to me on so many levels. The closest things I can personally compare to a “spiritual experience” all have to do with books. Physical books, in large numbers or astounding beauty.

What is your opinion, book lovers? Are ebooks less meaningful than their physically printed duplicates?

7 thoughts on “Physical Books: Old-Fashioned but Sacred

  1. I wouldn’t say they’re less meaningful, I just think they’re less desirable. I mean, if I had 2 of the same book – one in ebook format, one a physical copy – I think personally I’m more likely to pick up the physical copy. As a reader, I like the sensation of being able to turn the pages and handle the book, you know? Thanks for sharing Shannon – this is a really interesting discussion! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for stopping by! I’ve personally found that I remember books I’ve read in print better than ones I have on kindle. Like I remember WAY more of Maureen Johnson’s “Name of the Star” than I do of its sequel which I read more recently on my ereader.


  2. This a really interesting debate in the book-lovers’ community. Personally, I prefer a paper copy of a book, but I’m not morally against e-books. I think both have their benefits.

    Also, I don’t find a difference between hardbacks and paperbacks. That seems WAY too nit-picky for me:)

    Great post!


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