Pop Culture Intervention

Reading Physical Books Helps Me Connect With My Loved Ones And Myself

I just don't know how to quit print.

As Cicero is quoted as saying, “A room without books is like a body without a soul.”


Even in the age of the emoji and the all-day binge-watch, it seems most people still relate to that sentiment. A recent study found that 65 percent of Americans read a printed book in the last year, compared to 28 percent who read an e-book. Meanwhile, only 6 percent of people responded that they exclusively read e-books, while 38 percent choose to read only print.

While digital options have put video rental stores out of business and left boomboxes to gather dust, when it comes to books, we still prefer flipping pages to swiping a screen.

As for me, I just don’t know how to quit print.

I certainly recognize the benefits of digital books. They're environmentally friendly, portable, and save space. But while I've updated my methods of consuming other media like music and television, I remain stubbornly attached to traditional books, and I swear I'm not just a hipster. (Well, maybe I am.)

For starters, after spending so much of my daily life staring at screens, the printed page is a welcome respite. I also appreciate having physical copies of my favorite books to display. It adds a personal touch to my environment and offers a visual representation of my history as a reader — from Dr. Seuss to Feminist Film Theory.

Every so often, when I'm tidying up or simply feeling nostalgic, I'll flip through some of the old books on my shelf. There's nothing quite like seeing a stick figure scrawled in crayon inside a beloved children's book or discovering a handwritten letter from a friend tucked between the pages of a teenage read.

The tradition of borrowing books is also one I hope never to lose, because file sharing simply isn't the same. If there's a classic novel I'd like to read, the first place I always look is my mom's bookshelf. In high school, while my peers were checking out assigned novels from the library, I was walking into class with my mom's yellowing copy. We're both English majors, so she's never had a shortage of books to offer, and I've never had a shortage of interest.

The first copy of "Pride and Prejudice" I ever read was my mom’s. Is that corny? Maybe. But corny can be good when it comes to family.

Reading a borrowed book, especially a well-loved one, is like walking in the previous reader's footsteps. They turned the same pages, removed the same dust jacket, noticed the same misprint on page 187. You may even find evidence unique to them — an underlined sentence, a smudged fingerprint in the corner, a piece of scrap paper used as a bookmark.

That's not to mention how many mother-daughter conversations my book-borrowing has sparked. It's not that we're ever short on anything to talk about. It's just that instead of rehashing the latest episode of Real Housewives, it gives me the opportunity to learn about who my mom was before she was my mom.

"When did you get this?" I'll tend to ask upon picking up the latest title. Knowing how old she was when she wrote her name on the inside cover, especially if she was close to my own age, somehow alters the reading experience.

If your mother’s cooking tastes better simply by virtue of it being hers, perhaps something similar can be said about your mother’s books.

Speaking of, some of my mom's cookbooks have been passed down through generations, with personal recipes hidden inside on note cards. Meanwhile, she received the complete Shakespeare tome that takes two hands to remove from the shelf as an award for getting the highest score on a college theater exam. There's a note inside from her professor saying as much. And that wasn't even the first book she received for her achievements. Her16-volume set of American history books was a prize for penmanship in the first grade. (Out of daughterly respect, I won't tell you how far back the history stops.)

This treasured book-borrowing ritual also extends beyond family. In middle school, my friends and I passed around a single copy of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants as if it were the pants themselves, even if we didn't exactly have oceans between us.

Then, of course, there are the books we share with strangers.

Sure, sometimes I shudder over that mysterious sticky spot on the library dust jacket, but ultimately there’s something very cool about opening a book that dozens if not hundreds of strangers have read.

While I personally strive to return library books in the same state as when I received them, I have to admit I take a weird Sherlockian pleasure in discovering traces of previous readers. Why did they write a question mark in the margin next to that particular paragraph? What recipe were they planning to make with the ingredients on this forgotten grocery receipt? Is that rippling of the paper a result of dropping it in the bathtub or getting caught in the rain? I'm not alone in this — there's an entire Tumblr blog called Found in a Library Book.

There’s a tangible quality to books that separates them from other media. We can’t scribble our thoughts in the margin of a movie or crack the spine of a song.

Even if we skip Netflix or iTunes and actually take the time to put a disc into the player, a distance still exists during the experience. Physically opening a book closes that distance. There's a reason we don't say people have their noses stuck in a TV show — it would just bump against the screen.

Will I ever convert to e-books? I can't say for sure. After all, there was a point in time when I thought I would be watching VHS tapes for the rest of my life, and we all know how that turned out. But in the meantime, and even if the full transition finally occurs, I'll continue hoarding the copies I can actually put my hands on. 

When they figure out a way to make Kindles smell like paperbacks, then maybe we can talk.

Cover image via Rasstock / Shutterstock


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