The persistence of print

April 8th, 2019

The scent of print

When author Gary Shteyngart imagined the future in his 2010 dystopian novel Super Sad True Love Story, he knew that books were in trouble. Lenny Abramov, the main character, is one of the last people alive who still appreciates printed books. He keeps a wall of them in his apartment but has to keep an eye out so that his subtenant doesn’t chuck them in the fireplace for kindling. He sprays air freshener on the books when visitors come over to hide their smell, which is objectionable to most people in this futuristic version of New York City.

Lenny is proud of the collection on his bookshelf, even if he’s not entirely sure why. “You’re my sacred ones,” he says to his books. “No one but me still cares about you. But I’m going to keep you with me forever. And one day I’ll make you important again.”

For years, it has seemed inevitable that Shteyngart’s vision of the future might come to pass, with many writing off the long-term viability of the printed page. However, future Lennys may have company because books, it seems, are on the comeback. 

Books fight back

When Shteyngart’s book came out, electronic books, or e-books, were hot. I know because as an early adopter, I read Super Sad True Love Story on my phone. Even while swiping through thousands of tiny screens to read the text, I thought to myself, “This is miraculous! I can put a whole library in my pocket. I don’t have to lug books around to meetings. When I fall asleep reading at night, no hefty tome will thunk my nose.”

In a 2011 article for Catapult magazine, I wrote, “Our patience for outmoded technologies will grow thin. (Is there still a Society for the Advancement of Telegraph Usage?) Our facility with the digital will grow. And all those books that have been the symbol of the advance and preservation of civilization will look like an IBM Selectric Typewriter in a room full of Macs.”

Publishers and big-box booksellers like Barnes & Noble fought to get ahead of the curve. Amazon bet heavily on its Kindle e-book reader, and consumers responded. The device, at $400 with a six-inch screen, was out of stock for months because of the demand. Bookstores prepared to shutter their doors.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the digital future. Books fought back. Slowly at first, but by the first three quarters of 2018, hardback book sales were growing at a rate of 6.2% over the same period a year earlier, according to the Association of American Publishers. Paperbacks were also up by 2.2%. By comparison, e-book sales were slipping and accounted for less than one-fourth of the revenue generated by print books.

Bookstores also appear to be making a comeback. While Barnes & Noble is still struggling, independent booksellers are experiencing a renaissance. The number of independent bookstores increased by 35% from 2009 to 2015.

The pleasures of print

What accounts for the persistence of print? It may be that we’re built for books. After all, books are a very durable medium that has been with us for centuries ever since the scroll gave way to the codex, pages of papyrus stitched together with covers.

Books give us physical reference points that help us retain information. One Norwegian study revealed that “students who read texts in print scored significantly better on the reading comprehension test than students who read digitally,” The Guardian reported. Anne Mangen, a researcher at Norway’s Stavenger University, said that compared to paperback readers, readers in her study who used a Kindle “performed significantly worse on the plot reconstruction measure . . . when they were asked to place 14 events in the correct order.”

E-books can also affect our sleep. Shaunacy Ferro reported in Mental Floss about a 2005 Swedish study that found “people who used e-readers with LED screens at night slept worse and were more tired the next day.”

Finally, there’s the tactile pleasures of holding a physical book, feeling its weight in your hands and watching the pages mount up to the left as you move through the book. Even the resonating sound it makes when dropped onto a table is something to savor, not to mention the pleasures of wandering through shelves at the local book store.

A recent Observer article quoted Katie Presley, a buyer at an independent bookstore, on how books remain an item people like to shop for in person. “Book lovers are reading these big scary headlines about the death of the book industry,” Presley said, “and they’re motivated to put their dollars into an industry and an art form that they love and want to keep around.”

“People of the Book”

Not only do Christians have a long history with books, but also Christianity can be credited with an outsized role in popularizing books in the first place. According to the Encyclopaedia Romana, the early Christian church began to use the codex/book format to distinguish its holy writings from Jewish Scriptures and pagan literature. Books also allowed for longer texts and easier reference.

The Bible itself has always had a central place in Christian worship, both as Scripture and symbol. During the medieval period, Bibles became high art with illuminated manuscripts that featured gold lettering and precious jewels. In the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s, some branches of the Christian church adopted a much more austere style, but most worship spaces retained an exalted place for the Good Book.

Today, it still startles me when someone pulls out their phone to read from the Bible in worship. I’ve done it myself, but I wonder what it says about how we view the text. Islamic tradition refers to both Jews and Christians as “People of the Book,” indicating a common origin in sacred writings, but Christians also believe that the Word was made flesh in Christ. However, when the words appear in a virtual space, we can lose context and perhaps comprehension. While I often read the Bible online, it remains important that the Scriptures are seen in our worship — a physical reminder of the God who becomes incarnate in the world.


And then there’s audio . . .

As e-books decline in popularity and both hardback and paperback books show renewed signs of growth, it should be noted that none of these formats compares to the skyrocketing popularity of the publishing industry’s new darling — audiobooks. The Audio Publishers Association (APA) reported a 22.7% growth in total sales in 2017 to an estimated $2.5 billion. Sales of downloaded audiobooks in trade publishing in the first nine months of 2018 were up 37.4% over the same period the year before, the Association of American Publishers reported.

Who’s listening? The audience is younger, according to the APA, with 54% of audiobook listeners under the age of 45. However, this audience isn’t “reading” exclusively through audiobooks. Eighty-three percent of frequent listeners also reported reading print books in the last 12 months. “Our heaviest users are book lovers in all formats,” Chris Lynch, APA research committee cochair and president and publisher of Simon & Schuster Audio, said, “and their increased use of audiobooks is allowing them to get through more books, more quickly.”

Guardian journalist Alex Clark, a committed reader of print, recently became a convert to audiobooks. In a 2018 piece, she admitted to “a temptation to see innovation as a threat, to worry that the book will not withstand the bells and whistles of new and augmented texts.” However, she has come to find that her experience of a book is enriched by hearing it read to her with excellent production values. And, Clark says, it “has had no impact on whether or not I’ll read a book by a writer I will never hear reading.”

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