Why Do We Still Read Books?

  • amount of reading
  • 13 December, 2007

Blast from the Past: This entry was first published on December 13, 2007, and was reposted on March 15, 2018. Recently, the publishing industry revealed a big plunge in e-book sales accompanied by steady gains in the sales of traditional books. Much has changed since 2007 when this blog entry was first posted: tablets and larger phones have caught on, batteries have improved, more books are available in digital form and they are easier to buy and access--and, yet, the book hangs in there. I now regularly read both ebooks and paper ones myself, but ebooks are not likely to replace the paper ones until we--through advances in technology or teaching--improve readers' abilities to comprehend and remember the information we gain from electronic books. We simply don't read them as well as we read paper books.  

          I’m amazed at the persistence of the book in spite of dramatic advances in information technology over the past fifty years. The book—a 1500-year-old invention—not only survives, but thrives. The computer revolution has changed how we buy books (thanks, Amazon), but the fact is we still buy books, rather than disks, tapes, MP3 downloads or whatever this flavor-of-the-month’s info format may be.

           Tech companies hope to lure readers away from paper-paged books in favor of their sleek electronic readers (reminiscent of the old Marlene Dietrich films in which she’d try to steal the hardworking men from their loving wives). I’m sure the manufacturer has great hopes—and the newest e-book is admittedly better than past attempts to replace pages with bytes—better because this one looks like a book (imagine Dietrich without the mascara). Maybe this electronic hardware will persuade us to jilt the book, but I doubt it.

           Why do books persist? Part of the draw is that the book is a highly evolved technology. Books fit into a complex functional niche particularly well, making them especially hard to displace. One aspect of this functionality is portability. There are coffee-table books that may weigh several pounds, but most books are small and light: small enough to allow a woman to slip the latest Barbara Kingsolver into her purse or for a soldier to carry a Bible in his camouflaged blouse on an Iraqi battlefield. While I can read a book on my PDA, Blackberries make for poor reading experiences, because of glaring screens, small print, and short lines.

           Books are also remarkably versatile; they fit well into the nooks and crannies of our lives. I can comfortably read a book on the beach, in bed, or on an airplane. Books are ready to go when we are; there is no waiting for them to boot. On long trips, I worry about computer batteries, but in books I trust.

           Reading any kind of book—paper or electronic—is rewarding because of the author’s ideas and language. But books offer additional aesthetic pleasures. Book reading is not just a visual experience, it is a tactile one. We describe exciting reads as “page turners” and talk about “closing the book” for a reason.

           Many years ago, I was reading Charlotte’s Web to my daughter. We scrunched into an over-stuffed armchair, the only sound, the sound of my voice speaking E.B. White’s spare diction. Erin sat in my lap in her fleece nightgown, and I held the book in both hands, encircling her warmth in my arms. I can still feel the flannel against my arms, the heft of the book, and the soft textured paper under my fingers. When I read of Charlotte’s death, Erin burst into tears. Someday fathers may read e-books to their children in the same way; but, of course, it won’t be in the same way.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Jan Hasbrouck Mar 15, 2018 05:49 PM

Lovely memory, Tim.

Faith Gerber Mar 15, 2018 06:02 PM

I completely agree--books will never be entirely replaced. But I've also been curious about how our brains work to process "moving" digital text that has no fixed place on the page compared to paper text. Do you have any thoughts on the matter?

When I went back to school after 20 years to get my Master's degree, I had a terrible time with comprehension when I was reading journal articles online. Printing them up made it SO much easier! I have not used e-books much either for the same reason. I remember things by where they are on the page.

Martha Sutton Maple Mar 15, 2018 10:16 PM

Tim! Thanks so much for this message!! First, I have a former student, whom I taught in 1990-91 in Shreveport, LA, who has been in Angola Prison since he turned 18. He is now 38 years old and I have communicated with him since he entered prison. Some time ago, (2015-16) I received a long letter from him which brought me to tears. He started telling me about the six novels I read to his class that year I taught him in fifth grade. He told me the names of all the novels, who the main characters were, and everything about the events of each novel. I was stunned by his complete memory of just how I read with expression, etc. He described everything as though we were having a conversation in person. Every time I read this letter, I cry. I've read that letter to many teachers when I was giving workshops, etc. just to let them know how important it was to read to their students and just
how powerful their role was in the classroom. I'm now retired from public school. I'm working as an academic coach in a charter school. We have no library as the charter school believes that the classroom library is more important. However, our classrooms are not full of books, as they should be. I have multiple books in my office area and try hard to get students interested. My fifth grade teachers do not read to their classes on a regular basis. I'm continually giving books to students who will read. Our students are struggling in ELA and, of course, I know why. We use computer programs for most everything. This is my 56th year in education and I'm as excited about teaching and learning as I was in 1958, my first year of teaching. I am continually waiting on your blogs, waiting on my Amazon order of professional books and reading every minute I can. Please don't retire!
I can't thank you enough for your dedication and commitment to all of us who love our work and are completely dedicated to it!

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Why Do We Still Read Books?


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.