Books of all sizes line tall shelves that block the walls of the room from sight. They cover every available surface; beds, desks, floors, even seeping out into the hallways if the room has met its capacity. The inhabitant of this room knows the business hours of the nearest library by heart and has also memorized the fastest route there. This reader might have a mix of hardcover and paperback books, a favorite bookmark, or a reading light for night indulgence. For dedicated readers from just one or two decades ago this is a very recognizable story, but the modern reality for book readers has substantially changed.
The modern digital era
The digital revolution has transformed reading. The modern reader quite literally has a library worth of books at his or her fingertips. New forms of written content that were nonexistent before, like blogs and social media posts have become increasingly popular. In addition, some text-based information is becoming replaced by visual media such as photos and videos. Some electronic devices like kindles and nooks are even designed to be alternatives to bookstores.
On the other hand, there is also evidence to support the longevity and long term relevance of printed books. In her senior speech senior Tessa Rauch described her love of all books, even those not deemed “good books”.
“People are pretty attached to print books. I’m pretty attached to print books,” Rauch said.
Her argument in support of the printed page stands in line with many people’s positive views on books. Many readers enjoy the physical presence and visual appeal of a book over an electronic reading source.
“It’s kind of nice to have a book to hold in your hands, you can see how far you’ve gone and look at the cover. It’s more fun than having a bunch of data on a little device, then they all look the same,” Rauch said.
Even though there is support to paper book’s time in the literature industry, it is unclear whether they have or will continue to have a place in the modern digital era. As new developments in the reading and writing industry progress, books seem to be in danger of being replaced and becoming obsolete.
To put this question into a local perspective one should glance at St. Paul Academy and Summit School’s own library. The Randolph Campus library has about 20,000 books, nearly all of which are physical, paper objects. Though most SPA students probably know the library as a social or studying space, there is no evidence to suggest that this large collection of books is unused.
“The total circulation between January of 2015 and December of 2015 was 5,754. And then currently we have 1,200 books checked out right now,” Upper School Librarian Kate Brooks said.
Evidently libraries are not going out of use, but at the same time, reading on electronic devices is becoming more common. According to a Pew Research poll in 2013, 43% of Americans own an e-book reader or tablet and the number is rising. The chain bookstore Barnes & Nobles released the Nook, an electronic platform for buying and reading books. The St. Paul Public Library has it’s own app where users can browse the overall collection or read e-books.
E-books impact the brain
One sure fact is that paper books and their potential electronic competition are not identical, despite their shared purpose. Upper School English Teacher Matthew Hoven holds a book in one hand and a kindle in the other and stares pensively at both objects.
“I’m looking at the two … and they are radically different,” Hoven said.
Nearly every aspect of the two reading modes are separate. Their surfaces have different textures. The sounds that e-books make when a page is turned are different than flipping through a paper book. The way a reader’s eyes interact with the page compared to the screen is different. Even smell and (probably) taste are notably unique to each respective mode.
“The notion of the book is being redefined,” Hoven said, “I think that the human brain is evolving as well.” Hoven is not alone in predicting dramatic impacts on e-book readers’ brains.
According to a Scientific American article published in April 2013, brains interact in a much different way reading paper than reading on a screen. When one reads a physical book the brain records the location of every event in a map of sorts. The brain constructs this map in a similar way to how it would remember physical spaces, like room layouts or specific routes to get from one place to another.
“If you read a physical book you have more visual landmarks to go off of,” Rauch said, “So if there’s a stain in the corner of the page you’ll associate that stain with the content of the page.”
Creating a mental map of information is difficult for the brain when the text does not exist in a physical form on paper.
“There’s no spatial awareness on phones,” Hoven said.
One Medical Daily article states that reading on screens instead of on a page creates negative impacts on the brains of e-book users. The article suggests that e-book readers retain less information from their reading, and that e-books affect sleep and stress patterns.
E-books and print books coexist
It is easy to assume that the book and the e-book industry are fighting each other for business, but paper books and e-books are actually so different that they are not really competing.
“Part of the reason why you get all of these conflicts is because we tend to set up what I think of as a false dichotomy. It’s sort of this good bad kind of thing. E-books are going to destroy the world or print books can save the world,” Upper School Librarian Kate Brooks said.
“Obviously I think [books and e-books] do compete to some extent just for what medium people are using more often but as far as sales go, I think they’re both being sold by the same sorts of companies … So in that sense it doesn’t really matter what people are reading, it’s all just different ways of reading a book.” Rauch said.
In reality, both reading platforms have their own benefits and drawbacks which allow them to coexist. E-books should not be abolished for their few negative impacts because of their valuable qualities of fast and compact information. Similarly, book will not become obsolete as technology progresses because of their positive effects on the human mind and curious appeal. The modern reality is not that books are being replaced by electronic reading.
Books of all sizes still cover the bookshelves, their spines offering a peek at the cover page. Some of the books have been cleared off of the floor and bed, and they no longer seep into the hallway. On the nightstand sits a Nook, but right next to it sits a printed book. The modern reader has both options available but either way, the book lovers are still invested in stories.
Infographics by Gitanjali Raman, Online Managing Editor