Why do I still read physical books?
The answer is manifold.
The feel of paper in your hand eludes description. A well-bound book with spine & cover and the fresh smell of the printed page are pleasures you can only understand if you have enjoyed the experience. A feeling of progress as you see pages read pile up into a thick tome, see yourself move from one side of the book to the other, are also subtle motivators that you don't notice until you lose motivation plowing through digital books. The sight of shelves filling up with finished books is emotionally satisfying.
Parents universally want their kids’ first exposure to reading to be in form of physical book. You can read together! Each of you can hold one side of the book, on a couch or bed, and turn pages together.
The book itself is all you need. No chargers, cables, cases are necessary when you're packing or deciding what to bring on board a plane, train, or car. People are quick to tout the conveniences of storing books and articles electronically, as if they’re weightless. But weight isn’t just the number on the scale below your Kindle or iPad.
But there’s peripheral weight: devices require chargers and cables.
With a physical book, you can just pull it out and open it to begin reading. There's no need to charge a device through a cable, turn on a device and wait for startup, swipe out of the start screen, launch an app, remember a password to your account, remember which account. Just pull out, open up, and dive in.
When you're on the pot, you can start reading as soon as you sit down. I have a rule when I go potty: I want to be in the fictional world before anything goes PLINK! But if I’m fumbling with my phone dismissing notifications, or turning on a device, I may already be done and over the hump while the Apple logo is still showing. Do I want to lose those valuable seconds? Day after day? Potty after potty? It's hard enough to find time to read without dealing with all the digital startup friction and logos. Steve Jobs famously asked his Apple engineers to shave boot time to save lives, because seconds add up over time.
When it comes to something as important as reading, we should remove all friction. Whether it's waiting in a Disneyland queue, at a train station, anywhere there could be frequent startups and putdowns, those extra seconds add up!
No blue light or backlit screen. No other distractions from other apps or notifications. Just you and the story! In fact, in Why We Sleep, Professor Matthew Walker describes scientific studies that prove how reading backlit devices like an iPad in bed actually reduce the quality of our sleep, and hamper our wakefulness the following day:
Compared to reading a printed book, reading on an iPad suppressed melatonin release by over 50 percent at night. Indeed, iPad reading delayed the rise of melatonin by up to three hours, relative to the natural rise in these same individuals when reading a printed book. When reading on the iPad, their melatonin peak, and thus instruction to sleep, did not occur until the early-morning hours, rather than before midnight. Unsurprisingly, individuals took longer to fall asleep after iPad reading relative to print-copy reading.
Taking longer to fall asleep is only the beginning. The use of blue-light-emitting devices in bed also led to aftereffects in the following days.
First, individuals lost significant amounts of REM sleep following iPad reading. Second, the research subjects felt less rested and sleepier throughout the day following iPad use at night. Third was a lingering aftereffect, with participants suffering a ninety-minute lag in their evening rising melatonin levels for several days after iPad use ceased — almost like a digital hangover effect. Using LED devices at night impacts our natural sleep rhythms, the quality of our sleep, and how alert we feel during the day.
Visual and Mental Training
The fewer visual aids, the better. You can imagine characters as people from your life, use your imagination, speak the voices in your own head, proceed at your own pace (rather than the pace of a video or audiobook reader). If you enjoy a moment, you can slow down and savor it, reread without pressing a button!
The lack of visuals also trains your textual mind. You begin to think and read faster as your brain cells grow to process information faster. You can skim parts you dislike with much more aplomb as your brain gains pattern recognition in detecting them faster.
I can give my highlighted, margin-annotated book to my friend or partner, and they can see what I found important.
As I write or highlight directly on the page, knowledge imprints on my mind. If I need to relate a text snippet to my own life and work, I just make a margin note, without the need for plugins or fumbling to find the app's highlight functionality. No need to position finger correctly, deal with clumsy selection & UI, or worry about lost data. The book app developer’s concept of highlighting and margin-note-taking may not be yours — maybe you have your own shorthand, but the limitations of digital software UI doesn’t allow that. Physical books do.
The ability to store thousands of novels in a single device is a double-edged sword. While it's convenient when moving and traveling, it can be a temptation to jump. With physical books, it's one book, that you read start to finish. No temptation for jumping from book to book or article to article, app to app. It builds focus.
I talked about the peripheral weight of chargers and cables. More so than the number on the scale is mental weight: when the option exists to flip between books or — heaven forbid, apps! — your mind knows it, and the distraction may win out. But unlike the benefit of a thousand songs in your iPod or unlimited music on Spotify, books take more time and thought to digest! You don’t want to be constantly switching between books, pulling yourself out of one world and jumping into another!
Many of my friends have strict parents that limit their screen time, or don’t give them capable devices. They can’t just go to the library and check one out. Physical books just need to be opened, and most people/kids can afford them, or at least check one out of a library. There’s much less resistance from parents when purchasing, as well.
Of course, this is only the beginning. Between pricing and device quality, the experience may vary. The fact remains that physical books will continue to permeate our world by the sheer physical, tactile quality that keeps them around, on shelves, in libraries and homes.