Having just returned from my next-to-last MFA residency, I’ve had time to give some thought to the future of print books. At University of Tampa’s Book Arts Studio, I was given the opportunity to physically assemble a print book — in this case, a reprint of T.S. Eliot’s essay, Tradition and the Individual Talent. Our class learned the folding, punching, and binding techniques that go into the creation of a holdable text.
There exists a great hue and cry in publishing right now, as small and independent booksellers continue to bemoan the e-giants’ monopoly over popular reading (see prior posts for more on this topic). As humans reach for their devices rather than paper, bookstore owners and publishers alike begin biting their nails.
Here’s something, though, that has gone largely unconsidered: Bibliophiles of every generation enjoy the feeling associated with reading. When a book is especially well-produced — its cover embossed, its spine ridged, its pages delightful to turn — that experience becomes a large part of readers’ motives. They want to engage that part of their brains that makes connections with things touched rather than simply seen. For these tactile-kinesthetic learners (Gardner, 1983), reading is a complete sensory immersion, not merely a placing of text in the mind’s coffers.
I think back to my childhood, when my sister used to climb our old barn door and recline on the barn roof with her worn copy of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind. The escape and engagement of those moments became something that has stayed with her forever. Part of the book’s mental and emotional perseverance resides within the format of the book she selected, and of course the “getaway” it provided. Had we owned e-readers at the time (long, long ago), I do not believe that the text would have been as meaningful. It would have become just another series of letter impressions, relegated to the same mental vault as USA Today headlines.
I admit it — I have an e-reader or two. I’ve even published my own 2005 print volume in the Kindle format. But when I want to read for pleasure and not just information, inevitably I turn toward traditional print books. I’ve tried reading poetry in the electronic format; it loses the organic intimacy that a print text elicits. Reading, for those who seek to enjoy it, needs to be a complete set of sensations, not just fonts hitting retinas. And it is precisely these touch-influenced readers who truly want to “suck out all the marrow” of a book. They may be print’s salvation in an age of expedient electronics. The future will tell.