The Printed Word: Why Books Will Survive the Digital Age

I’ve always been a book person. No, I mean a BOOK person. Collector, curator, lover of the dust jacket, size, shape and smell of the printed word on paper. I know how books are paginated, printed, bound, packed, shipped, and how to write a publishing contract. My first career was the general manager of an 18 bookstore chain in the midwest. It was a great experience. I learned retail merchandising, finance and inventory management as well as the fine art of book buying. Publishing and book selling were a gentlemen’s sport at that time and full of mutual respect.

Of course the best part was I got lots and lots of books.

My collection grew out of hand in the late 1990’s. When I was about to move again I realized I’d need to buy 120 packing boxes for my books alone. You see, they don’t compress very well. Enough was enough, so I donated about half to the local library. They couldn’t believe it when I pulled up in my friend’s minivan. That was a nice day.

Fast forward to the digital era. I didn’t have an allergic reaction to reading on a screen, but it took me a while to buy my first book in the digital format. Much like my transition to digital music, time passed before it become a ritual activity. But there are so many benefits to digital books that I’m happy to say they have earned the right to coexist alongside my analog collection. Not replace it, mind you. Oh no, let’s not get crazy.

The biggest benefit of digital is I’m now reading about twice as many books as I did before I got my iPad, and here’s why.

  • It’s backlit, so you can sit in any chair in your home and read comfortably
  • Since you don’t need ambient light you won’t intrude on your wife’s desire to sleep while you read
  • You can carry hundreds of books with you without the weight and bulk
  • In the mood for something, or want to pick up on where you left off, no problem; just a few taps and you’re there
  • Virtual bookmarks never get misplaced which means you can find your favorite passages in a snap
  • No more driving to Barnes and Noble or waiting for Amazon to deliver
  • Trial is easy, as samples are free from the iTunes bookstore
  • iCloud allows you to push the content to all your Apple devices instantly, which means my wife can read the same book at the same time I’m reading it
  • The technology is great, allowing for a choice of font styles, sizes and backlight controls
  • If you come across an unfamiliar word, simply tap it and get the definition instantly
  • Packing for travel is a cinch; all your books come with you, automatically

The reading doesn’t stop there. Magazines, periodicals, professional journals, are all accessible digitally. I believe that magazines on the iPad far exceed the book experience. Just look at Wired or The New Yorker to see why.

Digital is great for traditional fiction and nonfiction works, but I don’t think it holds up for art books or other publications that are graphic rich. You no longer have the burden of carrying the book, but digital homogenizes all volumes. The physical shape of a book, trim size, thickness, paper stock, makes a book a book. Large books need to be large so you can rest them on your lap and enter a new world. Digital books are forced to fit onto either portrait or landscape. The fact that books come in countless physical forms makes them even more interesting.

There’s another drawback to digital. You can’t have a library in your home if you are all digital. There’s something very satisfying about entering a room that has wall lined bookshelves and stroll past the spines to see what’s there. When I visit someone’s home for the first time I immediately look for the books. You learn a lot about a person by what they read. It also becomes a catalyst for discussion. Can you imagine me grabbing their e-reader and asking for the passcode?

I think it’s critical for young children to see lots of books and be able to explore them in a tactile fashion. This is how they learn to read and how stories get told. From bath books and board books all the way up to chapter books, the book experience grows alongside the child. Try giving a 2 year old a digital book to keep them occupied in the tub.

I have some shelves filled with classics, Moby Dick, etc. I show them to my seven year old from time to time and give him a brief demonstration of why they are great works by reading a few sentences. He has something to look forward to and gets excited about it. “Dad, can we read that whale book again?”

Then there are bookstores. In the stores I ran, square footage was scarce, so we didn’t have comfy chairs and coffee bars. We wanted people to come in, browse, buy and leave. Then come back of course. The giant bookstores didn’t come along until a decade later, adopting a location platform modeled after the local library, but without all the shushing. That was a master stroke and I believe added years to the vitality of books and bookstores.

Of course the local library still stands as a hearth of knowledge in a community. My village recently passed a referendum to invest $12 million in a complete renovation and updating of our library to begin this spring. Some argue that we should abandon libraries, but for many people this is how they get their first exposure to the world of books. I’m happy to see libraries and hope we continue to invest in them for many years. I’ve thought it would be a nice concept to combine a library and a bookstore in the same space. The lending side would be much larger than the selling side, because most of the purchasing would be digital and no physical space is required. Creating commerce would provide additional financial support for the library.

It would be interesting to have the option to buy the analog book and the digital book at the same time, packaged together at a great price. I could add what I wanted to own as books while affording me the convenience of reading it on my iPad. Digital books are fantastic and I’m so glad they’re here. But book books will survive the digital age.

9 thoughts on “The Printed Word: Why Books Will Survive the Digital Age”

  1. I thought about your post as I slogged through my hard-bound version of the latest tome by historian Max Hastings — a 700-page doorstop named “Inferno.” It’s a brilliant book, but I cannot take it with me to enjoy during my daily ride on the commuter train because it’s just too darned heavy. Meantime my 10-year-old daughter Marion is devouring books on her new e-reader, which she requested as a birthday gift after lugging around the mammoth “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. I think physical books will remain in more limited form for archival reasons alone (e.g., analog copies to back up digital copies, which, of course, are vulnerable to the vagaries of the digital world).

    An interesting anecdote: I recently met Brian Selznick, author of “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” the basis for the movie “Hugo.” (The occasion was a book signing.) Because his books are visual feasts, I naturally asked him if he’s considered creating future books for the iPad. His answer was an emphatic “no.” He said, “The iPad is a technology. The physical book is also a technology that relies on the human touch of turning a page to experience content. I’m not moving away from that experience.” On the other end of the spectrum is Razorfish Chairman Clark Kokich, whose new book “Do or Die” was published exclusively for the iPad. In a blog interview with me (, he said, “If you’re in marketing and don’t own an iPad, something is wrong. How can you be in this business and not surround yourself with all the latest technology? It doesn’t make any sense.”

  2. I would have really liked to have met Mr. Selznick. We love his books. I believe that digital books and e-readers will mean more people will read more books. That is a good thing.

    P.S. I couldn’t find Clark’s Do or Die in the iTunes bookstore. Is it not out yet?


      1. Absolutely fine! And you are quite welcome. Thank you for your point of view. I am a huge bibliophile. I would say my addiction is a problem, except that I enjoy it too much to admit it. 😀

  3. Books have to survive, if for no other reason than we read different types of books differently. I read my fair share of nonfiction and I’ve not been happy when I’ve bought them digitally.

    I find I’m more apt to read a new (to me) author in digital format. I finally made the switch to a Reader when the books I was reading would no longer fit comfortably in the back pocket of an airline seat.

    I have a friend, an avid reader, who has not purchased a physical book since he was given a Reader last Christmas. The only thing that makes me sad about that is that he would occasionally send me a box of books…his duplicates when he discovered he had bought the same book more than once.

  4. Funny – just yesterday I too was wishing that a book purchase would include both digital and hard copy.

    When I find a great book, I love writing notes and sticking post it’s throughout. But when I am on the go – nothing beats a Kindle or some other digital version.

    I know on Amazon you can buy both at a discount for some books – but I don’t take advantage of it, perhaps I should.

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