The Joy of Text: A Case for Paper Books

I have missed personal interaction with the printed page.

You know how sometimes when you travel, you realize what you forgot to bring, but it’s too late? I confess to having made emergency purchases of unmentionables at a Chicago boutique, round hairbrushes at Walgreens, mascara at a hotel gift shop, and bug spray at a pharmacy in Tuscany.

My most recent travel oversight wasn’t nearly so critical, but the void it left rocked my routine. No Kindle. I had planned to cuddle up in our lake cottage with reading material, much like I do at home—only this time, no electronic reading device, and, therefore, no menu of preselected items. So I did what any self-respecting literary buff would do: I went to the bookstore, an actual bricks-and-mortar establishment, the kind we used to frequent.

A funny thing happened when I arrived at the nearest Barnes & Noble: I fell back in love. I acquiesced to the attraction of new releases and answered the siren call of the end-cap displays. I found my favorite authors and slid my fingers along the spines of books I yearned to read. And not just read, but buy, hold in my hands, and, when finished, tuck onto a shelf, mine to remember and admire for all time.

I purchased Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris, and Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed, and left with a heart as full as my shopping bag. I felt jubilant, like when my mother and I used to take our weekly trip to the book department of L.S. Ayres. Thrilled by my ability to read before kindergarten, she encouraged me with frequent trips to the downtown store, where the book I chose would be mine to keep. And here I was again, after a hiatus, full of expectation.

As a child, I would sleep with a book in my arms, so as not to let the story go.

The reading experience did not disappoint. The weight of the volume felt right, as did hoisting the book to eye level, grasping the corner of one page to get to the next, backing up pages or even chapters to reacquaint myself with prior characters, returning to the cover again and again just to remind myself of the title. Sometimes covers, with their thick, velvety paper, feature embossed letters or images that allow you to feel the words and illustration. That tactile experience, along with a study of the author’s photograph every time you insert the back flap between pages to mark your place, aren’t a lot, but they aren’t nothing. This latest experience felt like climbing back onto a bicycle I hadn’t ridden in decades and pushing forward, turn after turn of the pedals, the only mission to find out what lay ahead.

Sure, on my Kindle I could have found joy in Sedaris’s honest and funny essays, and meaning in Hosseini’s adeptly woven tale, but I wouldn’t have known what I was missing: personal interaction with the page. As a child, I would sleep with a book in my arms, so as not to let the story go. It’s too late for such juvenile folly, but I still find comfort in a book’s physical presence: the sight of it on my bedside table, a pair of magnifiers folded on top.

Renewing my love affair with books, as opposed to digital files of books, got me thinking what else we have foregone in the name of what’s shiny and new. Folded paper maps are more reliable than GPS, which can lead us astray, like it did the woman stranded in Death Valley a few years back. Framed pictures are more pleasing than the teeny squares on our iPhones. (Lest I sound like a fogey, let it be known I have abandoned my long-ago campaign to return to the typewriter, as writing on one device and printing on another seemed an extra step, when the trusty typewriter did both at once.)

Spurred on by the happy encounter with my old friends, the books, I paid a visit to the new Barnes & Noble at Keystone at the Crossing. The place feels like a warehouse, with exposed ductwork and large overhead signs. It is the Costco of literature, featuring items you didn’t go in for but leave with just the same. Books occupy the store’s core, but around the edges are toys, gifts, movies, and TV series on DVD. The bookstore has morphed into a store with books.

I spent $74 during that visit, on notecards for myself, crafts kits for one granddaughter, and a picture book for the other. Kids’ editions seem still to be selling amidst the candles and beach bags (no pet supplies, pharmaceuticals, or fresh produce, thank heaven). Perhaps parents and grandparents believe children need to know where real books come from, like a field trip to an orchard to see that apples are grown someplace other than the supermarket. There are inspiring displays of classics: beautifully bound volumes such as Anna Karenina and Crime and Punishment, Treasure Island and Peter Pan. The books are shrink-wrapped, more like props than reading material, silently begging us to buy them for posterity.

While I was in the mood, I journeyed to a used bookstore, where rocking chairs with worn braided seat cushions were positioned alongside leaning stacks brimming with dusty tomes. The place felt comfortable—homey, almost. Two large dogs roamed the aisles. Handwritten tent cards provided personal recommendations.

I’m afraid the new Barnes & Noble concept might not work, given the decline in sales and sudden departure of the company’s CEO. When I visited, the browsers were mostly retirees, enjoying the experience much like they might listening to Frank Sinatra. Anyone who goes to a bookstore probably goes for books, not picture frames or greeting cards, and there aren’t many of us left. When books with paper pages go the way of the videos we used to rent from Blockbuster, we will be faced with one choice: buy them used. The bookstore of tomorrow might resemble the place with the rockers and dogs: filled with what we used to treasure, way back when.

Illustration by Andrea Eberbach

This article appeared in the October 2013 issue.