The physicality of reading. Do you pay attention to it? Does it matter to you? Is how a book feels in your hand, how it looks, smells, sounds, are these things important? Author Andrew Piper thinks they are. He thinks they are so important he wrote a book about it, Book Was There: Reading in Electronic Times. I have not read the book, my library has it on order and I have a request in for it so I will get it soonish, I hope. But while I have not read the book, I have read an essay excerpt of it.

I have mixed feelings about Piper’s argument. He argues that the physicality of the book is so tied up with the experience of reading that it cannot be separated from it. What this suggests is that reading an e-book doesn’t count as reading. Really? So what I am doing on my Kindle nearly everyday is not reading? What is it then?

Piper uses St. Augustine as an example of how the physicality of the book helped lead to his conversion. This argument I don’t buy. Piper writes as if Augustine sat under that fig tree reading from his TBR pile. Augustine’s conversion did not happen because of books in general but because of one particular book, the Bible. The fact that Augustine could own his own copy of the Bible is important, but to generalize Bible into all books is bad reasoning.

I do agree with Piper that digital texts can feel distant and insubstantial. This feeling arises from being able to turn the book off and even delete it, neither of which one can do with a paper book. But Piper takes it even further and provides examples of how digital texts are so much more fragile and ungraspable. Unfortunately, his examples are bad ones because he chooses digital texts that are not really books at all but more in the line of art.

Piper has an e-reader so he isn’t one of those people slamming e-books without even having read any. Obviously he does not like his e-reader. Pushing a button to turn a page or swiping a finger across the screen is a physical action but it is not the same as turning a page of a paper book. He talks about the resistance of buttons and declares that swiping makes “everything on the page cognitively lighter.” I have a plain e-ink Kindle so I push a button. I can’t say the slight resistance involved in button pushing affects my reading.

I am whole-heartedly with Piper in loving the physicality of the book. Heck, I own a lot of paper books and have not stopped buying them. I do like how they feel and smell, and look. I like turning the pages and the sound the paper makes when I do it. I love the thump when I drop a book on the floor or not so gently set down a pile of books. I like looking at my marker sticking out of the pages of a closed book and measuring how much I have read and how much more there is to go. I could go on and on about the things I love about paper books. But I love e-books too. I love how I can carry lots of books on my Kindle without my bag being any heavier for it. I like that I can make the font larger so I can read on the train and bus without my glasses. I like that my e-reader is so compact I can read it comfortably in crowded places. I like that I have an easel-style cover for it that allows me to prop it up on a table and read hands-free while I eat my lunch.

Both paper and e-books have their advantages, their pleasures, pains and drawbacks. I’m not sure that the physicality of a paper book automatically makes it better than an e-book. It appears I disagree with Piper’s argument, but I find it interesting enough that I want to read his book to see what he says in full. I did have to laugh though because the article is in an online magazine and Book Was There is available as an e-book. I hope Piper at least appreciates the irony in that.