Three Reasons to Keep Paper Books

Here come the e-readers, a boon to travelers and speed readers, and, we’re told, a saver of trees. And, in their wake, here come the prophets predicting doom to the paper book, and along with it the death of copyright and all sorts of unknown effects.

But not so fast. Don’t burn the books yet. I’m not pleading the venerable history, the beauty of design, or the tactility of the page. Here are three practical reasons not to ditch the paper:

1.Solar storms. A big one could fry transformers, as solar storms have in the past, and affect satellites and towers in such a massive way that communications could be down for months, with much disruption of all sorts. Including, possibly, the wipeout of all online libraries and downloads.  Don’t let anyone embed a chip into your head, either, no matter how much memory they promise to add!

2.Energy shortages. Remember Peak Oil? We know that green energy is galloping to the rescue, but is nowhere near meeting the need. We know that internet servers are themselves gobbling up huge amounts of energy. Will server relocation on Iceland meet future needs? Guess we’ll see… If not, down goes the Net.  Not to mention your ability to re-charge the batteries of your e-reader.

3.Overloaded internet. The thing is stuffed to capacity already, with more information piling into it every day. Unless billions are spent on infrastructure, brownouts—we’re told – are very likely. And then, how now, brown cash cow?

If you’ve saved up some paper books, you can read them by candlelight, and then toast marshmallows on them if you don’t like them. As you huddle around the embers of your carefully-guarded fire, with no television, no computer, and no phone, you’ll be glad you kept a few. Anyway, they make good insulation.


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64 responses to “Three Reasons to Keep Paper Books

  1. Whew! Now I feel better about my love for paper books:)
    Thanks for the post!

  2. I’m not sure I’m buying the argument that ‘the internet is too full.’ Though it makes me giggle…

  3. Yes yes yes!! I thought I was too old school to be buying books at the store. Some ebooks are great if it is a one time read or a reference one but you can’t take your iPhone in the tub!

  4. I love this reasoning – it’s going to be pasted around the store tomorrow!

  5. Delightful!! The best arguments I’ve heard to date!

  6. Lisa Meyer-Braun

    This is why we choose to have books adorning our walls instead of t.v’s. …these are for our entertainment as well as for our increasingly inquisitive daughter…what an indoor playground she has to look forward to at any age!

  7. 3 excellent reasons indeed. A book never breaks down, well except when it is so old that it falls apart. But if it is looked after lovingly, that can be avoided.

  8. Joanne Crawford

    Well I have both but travel lots so love the e-reader and have a solar charger – not a lot of good in Scotland I have to admit. Still have a lot of favourite books in paper and they are going nowhere. I think we will all end up with both formats – just need to make sure friends have a different set of paper books to share.

  9. Wendy Ladd

    Some very good points. Love your work.

  10. I am torn between the love for my “paper” library and my new Sony Ebook reader. As you mentioned, the Ebook is wonderful to take on a trip because it doesn’t take up precious space in the suitcase. It also keeps the nosy passerby from knowing you are reading some silly book about vampires. (For research purposes only, of course). But then no one can notice I am reading Proust on the beach and be impressed. (I have an ongoing personal fantasy that someone will one day pass me by and be blown away by what I am reading…)

  11. Daniela

    I keep my favorite ones but have been flirting with the idea of some sort of kindle. Regardless of this post I’d always thought of the collapse of energy sources that feed our current depending on gadgets for everything. I love my digital SLR but keep my film one just in case – though I don’t know if I’d manage to find film in case everything went down the drain. Maybe it will be back to pinhole and oral stories.
    Happy 2010!

  12. There’s Bradbury’s famous quote that “e-books are not books.” I don’t believe he meant simply to dismiss e-books, but to stress that print books and digital text represent two different media with vastly different artistic possibilities!

    For instance, how about hypertext novel, in which each word or sentence links to a whole new short story, or a (static or moving) image, or an explanatory text? Writers are still getting a feel for the possibilities of digital/hypertext media. With time, we’ll move beyond this concept of boring, fussy, cut-and-paste “e-books.”

    Here’s a website with some experimental hypertext writing:

  13. MMcGovern

    I’m skipping off to buy a new book! I do read odd chapters of the free classics on my iPhone when I am stuck without a paper book with me—beats reading transit ads and I listen to audio books as I walk my dogs. Options, but no replacement!

  14. I agree! Interesting and powerful arguments, even if the idea of a Kindle and bringing everywhere all your favorite autors it’s tempting…..

  15. breadwild

    Alarmist, Chicken Little poppy-cock.

  16. Ben Drucker

    Of all the arguments for paper books, you chose solar storms, energy shortages, and an “overloaded internet”? I hope this is a joke. I fear that it is not.

    First off, I’m not sure you understand how the internet works. The internet cannot be filled. Also, the “brownouts—we’re told – are very likely”–can you substantiate that? I’ve never heard that and based on my knowledge that is highly unlikely.

    Paper books certainly have a place. As much as I’ve transition to doing my everyday reading on electronic devices, I enjoy reading paper books and newspapers as well. But you are just hurting the cause. Fear mongering and lies will only further the negative image ascribed to those who favor paper over electrons by supporters of e-reading.

  17. May I interject? There is one key reason supporting the existence of e-books that has not been mentioned. E-books of family histories, published in late 2009 by Millisecond Publishing, some running more than 5,000 pages would be simply impossible to print – or view – in any other manner. There is a vast quantity of valuable, recently digitized information that would otherwise be unknown, were it not for the development of e-books as alternatives to printed books.

  18. LilVal

    Thanks for sharing this type of info as I have 2,700 books and still buying more book. I am absolutely a book worm and wouldn’t know what to do If I went blind then I guess I would have to find another alternative but ’til then I love my paperback books 😉 –

  19. Ava

    I love your work but I hope you have it available in e-book format. This technology is perfect for the student, especially the kids carrying around– or trying to– 40 + pounds of trees.

    I’ve bought one book since my husband gave me a Kindle a few years ago, a cookbook. Everything else that I read for pleasure including the Art of War, Turn of the Screw, Shadow of the Sun, Olive Kitteridge, White Tiger, In Defense of Food & more, I read lovingly on my Kindle.

    The literary work matters to me and if I can have it without killing a tree, that’s my preference.

  20. Bravo!! As co owner of a used bookstore, I applaud your comments. There’s nothing like the feel and smell of a book! They are old and new friends that keep us company on vacation, sleepless nights, and while tucking children into bed at night.

  21. Paper books also don’t leave stars and spots in your field of vision–the words might, but the pages won’t. And a big brown-out might be the perfect opportunity to master making origami blue footed boobies out of those pages.

  22. You forgot the most important reason: format stability!

  23. It’s a ploy! Stop buying books people, you’re killing more trees which will never be restored in all your lifetimes put together! :d

    • Theodora Sobin

      That is not a reason. There are certain corporations that produce paper that want books to be on tree paper, but there are other sources of paper, like hemp, that are renewable. We don’t need to do away with the book format for a less stable format. We just need to get away from using tree paper.

  24. What else, besides sex, would I do in bed without a book on those shocking, sleepless nights? What would a lie on the trampoline be without a page-turner in my hands? Tucking into a little adult reading at daughters’ dancing classes would require a whole new set of logistics without the paper book. Sometimes the technology just doesn’t cut it.

  25. Ralph Jon

    I don’t find it appealing to read an e-book because an e-book reader and the computer monitor make my eyes hurt eventually. The experience of handling and reading a paper book is unmatched.

  26. I have a HUGE personal library of books (including most of a certain brilliant Canadian author’s I might add). I have often had the silly fantasy of opening a private lending library as a source of income when the whole mess finally collapses. Of course, I’ve also had silly fantasies of how I’d hide my books from the thought police should we drift towards some of our scarier dystopias.

    As I already live in the woods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (call it Canada-light) with no television and stand by oil lamps for when the power goes out – I say “Bring it on!”

  27. Tui

    I wonder if the plastic/wiring/batteries required to make an ebook leaves more of a carbon footprint than a traditional book? And when they die, break, become outmoded, are they recycled through dangerous material sites or go to landfills where they lie off-gassing for umpteen hundred years?

    A book will compost. A tree is a renewable resource. And I know which feels more beautiful in my hands and delights my senses.

  28. Judy

    Ah, well, I’m creeping slowly toward some sort of electronic book, partly because there are only so many of the paper kind I can squeeze into a one-bedroom apartment. As I deaccession my large collection, I try to keep those that are reference, classic, or just too wonderful to give up. Some balance will emerge eventually. For now, I’m keeping my powder dry as we all wait for the next round of competitors, and appreciating more and more those books printed on acid-free paper that don’t disintegrate in my hands.

  29. Good read, will recomend to my friends. Thankyou.

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  31. Jinny

    To all the self thought environmentalists who have commented before me: I sell used books. By the time they get to me most of them have been read numerous times. I sell them, someone reads them, then they lend them to someone else who reads it, then it goes back to a used bookstore and it goes on and on until the book sits on someone’s shelf for several years and it starts all over again. The trees to worry about are not the ones grown and harvested by paper companies – the paper companies replant every tree they cut down and are probably a help to the environment. The trees to worry about are the ones cut down for new construction. There was a post before this one where it was mentioned that books can be composted – there’s nothing in a book that won’t decompose – your Kindle will be around for a very long time and you’ll probably upgrade within the next ten years, possibly more than once.

  32. Pingback: Things to read: books! | Samantha Garner, Freelance Web Writer & Editor

  33. mae

    When electricity to power personal access to the internet and to power the internet itself is scarce, and when internet infrastructure resources become scarce (as any resource can) then another result could disrupt the use of books. Just about all library catalogs are online. Even if the libraries somehow decide to keep the paper that they haven’t already digitized/discarded, how will scholars or others FIND the physical location of the material they need?

  34. Pingback: Solar Storms, Energy Shortages, and an Overloaded Internet… | The Black Letters

  35. Well, I started commenting, and before I realized it, my comment had exploded into a 800 word discourse. I moved it over to my site here: if you care to take a look. Basically, I am fully 100% in support of keeping paper books and I think there are multitudes of little scientific reasons that quickly add up. And, in the end, the most important thing is that people should be appreciating the physical book as a form of media and presentation and not settling for a stream of pixelated font.

  36. Good points! For me it’s the weight of the book in my hand and the texture of the paper that creates an intimacy with the author that I can’t imagine getting from an e-book.

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  38. Melanie Moore

    Recently a friend of mine tried to turn me onto e-readers. Kindles (I cannot speak for any other e-reader) are actually pretty user-friendly. The “electronic ink” is easy on your eyes and if you have page-turner ADD, like I do, it is actually pretty useful by just keeping it on one page at a time. My friend is a ICU nurse also. Being a nurse, she has to use medicine reference books during her shift. Imagine lugging one of those around all day! And no matter what, no one is ever going to learn all of those medications. So, in response, she uses her Kindle as a pocket reference of these huge books. This, I thought, was a cool and responsible use of an e-reader.
    However, with the Kindle we’ve already seen the Kindle II come out. How soon before the next one? As humans bent on conspicuous consumption, we believe that we need the next new thing. If you don’t believe me, look at our cell phone problem. So what will happen when we upgrade our e-readers? More electronic waste. If you have ever sat through the documentary “Manufactured Landscapes” (and others made about the same subject), you would know that the United States does not take care of its surplus of e-waste on these shores.
    E-readers are conserving resources. Yes, I get that. But at what cost?

  39. Melanie Moore

    I forgot in my last post to address my other issue with e-readers. My friend told me that there’s really no way to lend the books she has on her Kindle. That is the most environmentally friendly thing you can do, in respect to books. Not only is it environmentally friendly, it encourages discussion and strengthens friendships. Remember the days of lending your compact discs, cassette tapes, and records? Now that they have been replaced with mp3’s, which people usually play on individual mp3 players, it seems that people have become more isolated. File sharing is mostly illegal, so we can no longer share what we love with who we love. In turn, we become our own little intellectual islands.
    Also, if e-readers increase in popularity, what happens to the library’s place in the community?

  40. One of my fondest memories is being read to aloud as a child, and later, of reading to my own children. Seeing my parents read encouraged my love of the written word.
    What a loss to the world if children are not encouraged to touch, smell, feel the magic of owning and rereading a favorite book.
    I doubt a family can cuddle up to share an e-book could ever compare to the “real thing”!

  41. JJ

    People who talk about paper killing trees don’t know much about the pulp and paper industry. It is extremely rare for companies to pulp whole logs because it is so expensive.

    Paper, at least paper made here in B.C. is largely made out of wood waste. Pulp mills choose waste wood if it is made available because it is cheaper.

    Unfortunately, right now whole stands are being knocked down and enough wood to fill logging trucks lined up between here and the east coast is being left to rot after the companies take the good logs.

    I am not about to defend our forest practises – because they are largely awful – but it is less important to worry about killing trees re: books than it is to advocate for policies that disallow the waste of wood.

    Right now pulp mills are shutting down in B.C. – not because of a lack of demand for paper – but because we can’t compete with jurisdictions with lax labour and environmental standards – and because of our own policies which have driven up the cost of getting material to turn into pulp.

    If it was illegal for forest companies to leave so much waste in the woods – if they were required to use it all – it would be a lot better for the environment – since all that wood waste is giving off greenhouse gases as it decomposes. A book is a carbon sink – at least until it meets its end.

    And since most people live in jurisdictions where energy is created by nuclear or fossil fuels it is a pretty far stretch to imagine that an e-book is more environmentally friendly than a paper book. A paper book is a carbon sink – an e-book causes emissions.

    Nevermind the vast amount of pollution and energy wastage involved in creating the e-book in the first place – mining is a very dirty activity – and there is not an electronic gadget to be found that doesn’t utilize a number rare metals.

    And let’s not talk about the plastic… made of fossil fuels…. who here thinks the tar sands are environmentally friendly?

  42. Nona

    I agree with all of what your saying but would also add that there is nothing like buying a new book. The smell, the feel, the giddy feeling of knowing the when you open that book it will open up a new world or time for you that could only be in your dreams otherwise. I look at my books as stepping stones of my life. I have certain genre’s that speak of what I was doing at that time in my life such as my teenage fantasy/vampire craze, note all my Anne Rice and Stephen King books and the earlier twenties when I was doubting my choices and trying t find myself, alot of those Chicke Soup and finding yourself books and now the comfortable time with all my history and classics. I would be lost and memories would be gone with out my treasure trove of my books. My daughters 4 & 6 have started their own little library and are so proud of it though it is only favorite worn copies it’s theirs and they love allthe books they have, I wish every kid could have one.

    E-readers are great for the electronic gurus but I like simple pleasures that don’t need a plug in.

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  45. Marina DelVecchio

    I am a writer (, a lover of great literature, and I teach literature on the college level. Every semester, I teach Margaret Atwood’s essay on Pornography…my students get into a heavy discussion about it its content. Having spent a great deal of my time in public libraries while my mother attended night school, I grew up surrounded by books of all kinds, and I love the feel and smell of the actual books in my hands. I tried reading Pride and Prejudice on my iphone, and the experience was empty.

    And about two days ago, my computer was hacked into by some crazy virus, and now it’s at Best Buy waiting for some doctoring, along with all my writing and pictures of my children and family. If I get all my work back, I am printing out everything, including my pictures, and backing up all my work. You have to have lived without computers, as I have, to appreciate the simplicity that existed before having them.

  46. Debbie

    Plus, paper books have that smell to them that makes you feel at peace!!

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  48. LCD monitors are the de factor standard these days because they do not consume too much electricity*.”

  49. msot computer monitors these days are already using LCD technology and some are LED-LCD “;-

  50. there are mnay used books online and the price is cheap too but i wonder if the quality of it is good *~,

  51. Michael March

    Ebooks are very convenient for reading fantasy novels. Typically, those are like games which you only play once, and you go through them pretty quickly, so if it’s all on ebook, it saves a lot of paper, and a lot of space in your place. And just think how silly you would feel if you had an entire book store worth of fantasy novels sitting in your bedroom, all of which you have read for the first and last time. If it’s something by Margaret Atwood though, then chances are you’ll read it again and again, so it’s best to get a paperback, or even a hard back if you have the money.

    After reading twenty three ebooks on your nook, you have offset the negative environmental impact of the device.

    • jj

      I don’t know where you get that stat about reading 23 books on the nook erasing it’s environmental impact from but I am highly doubtful that is true. Nooks, ipads, and e-readers of all sorts are made with minerals and other resources which are finite, hard to extract – and difficult to recycle.

      Nevermind the fact that they require electricity to use. Where do you live? Unless you live in one of a very few jurisdicitions (B.C., Quebec) that is primarily fueled by hydroelectricity the vast majority of the electricity you are using is made from fossil fuels or nuclear generation. When I sit in the sun and read a paper book, I am not hurting the environment or using electricity at all.

      Your example about fantasy novels is also off the mark. You ever use a library? Or buy a book used? You are not required to buy all those fantasy novels brand new, are you? My general rule is 50 cents or less (used) or borrow it from the library – unless I believe it is worth keeping or I know the book will be easy to give away after.

      Again, as I also noted above, even new books are seldom made from trees pulped whole. Most paper on the market uses the byproducts (sawdust and chips) from the lumber milling industry. Indeed – the single greatest reason why pulp mills have been closing in my home province of British Columbia is the fact that the slump in the lumber market caused by the real estate bubble in the United States has led to a lot of sawmill closures – meaning the pulp mills had nowhere to get their raw materials from.

      So while I won’t pretend there is no environmental impact from the creation of paper – as long as it remains a by-product of the lumber industry it is very difficult to make the claim that a paperless society would necessarily be better for the environment. Perhaps it would be – but not as long as we are using lumber.

      Regardless, however – it is extremely unlikely that your nook, which is made of non-renewable resources like plastic and metal could make up for its environmental footprint with the reading of just 20 odd books. Trees are a renewable resource – books, a carbon sink. Once a book is printed it can be read without electricity by hundreds, if not thousands of people. I just cannot be brought to believe that a nook could offset itself – even over its ENTIRE lifetime of use – simply because it becomes worse for the environment the more you use it.

      I guess if you bought a nook and didn’t use it and then didn’t read any books it might be better for the environment? Perhaps.

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  55. Lena

    Ebooks just seem wrong to me. Think of it, a government decides to promote ebooks instead of paper books. Then one day a tyrant takes over. He doesn’t’ like what’s being said of him in ebooks and decides that he should edit the content. Those things aren’t safe. It also disgusts me how people treat real books now. There was one article about ebooks and someone suggested that paper books could now be used for toilet paper. Seems like a bunch of anarchists to me.

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