On Printed Words

Do you remember the first time you encountered a Kindle? After their release in 2007, these digital reading devices starting popping up in airports and waiting rooms, changing how we read and think about books.

I remember looking at my bookshelf, imagining how incredible it would be to carry those thousands of pages of printed words in a device smaller than a single book. The cult of the new told us that the book industry would be “disrupted” forever, that books of paper (along with libraries and bookstores) were a thing of the past.

I bought my first eBooks in 2010, reading them on my iPod (which is like an iPhone, but with no calling feature ;) ) at the time. A few years ago I finally got a full-sized digital reading device (an iPad, which is my original iPod, the grownup size), excited to tap into the wealth of information on the web, and read in comfort.

You don’t know what you have until it’s gone

Rationally speaking, reading digitally makes so much sense, right? An iPad is lighter than most books, giving you access to libraries-worth of books. The words themselves (the content) are identical as the ones in printed books, plus has all the benefits of the internet to discover more books than ever before.

But after reading digital books for a while, you can pick up a paper book and appreciate it in new ways. It’s all the intangibles: the smell of the paper, the note-taking, the visual reminders of how far you have to go on a particular book and where you read a particular passage that you want to flip back to.

Part of the problem of reading on a screen is the screen itself. I’ve found that after spending a day staring at a computer screen at work, reading on a different screen in the evening is a strain on my eyes, and hardly a relaxing endeavour.

Hyper-connected devices, which on one hand provide accessibility, on the other hand offer multitudes of distraction that paper books. Screens are masters of distraction, so if you’re using one to spend time focused on reading, you have to be intentional about cutting the device off from potential distractions (link to do not disturb post).

Re-discovering the importance of paper

Which is better for reading then, print or screens? What’s your preference? Both screens and printed books have advantages and contexts where each shines more.

Personally, I’m re-discovering the importance of paper books for digesting printed words. Here’s what I’ve come to appreciate:

  1. Paper books eliminate distraction. Books are a “single task technology”, and offer an escape from distraction-filled screens.
  2. Tactile reading makes me a better reader. I find myself visualizing the spot on the page where a particular idea was mentioned. And I love being able see and feel my progress through a book’s pages, and the feeling of accomplishment when I finally close a particularly thick book.
  3. Physical books are symbols. The secret power of books is that, more than words on a page, books are a physical manifestation of an idea. The reason we love to display our books on a shelf, and take photos of book covers is because they trigger ideas, memories and thoughts.

Then I printed a book

Since 2010 I’ve enjoyed producing digital books. eBooks take a lot of work, but they also have a relatively low barrier to entry. If you have an internet connection and a copy Keynote, you can launch your ideas into the world! Why bother wasting paper and paying money to produce a physical thing?

But, just like reading them, writing printed books is different than writing for screens. It’s important to get words off the screen and into a physical form that can be touched, handed from person to person, interacted with.

Once you hit Print (or, send the final files to the printer), something changes. Suddenly an idea that existed in pixels on the screen now occupies real space. Once you can smell and feel them, your ideas come to life in a new way.

Print gives ideas weight, in both a literal and metaphorical sense.

I used to love the mantra that “if it’s not online, it doesn’t exist” (I think I got this from Craig Mod, whose thoughts on books and publishing in the digital age have been extremely helpful). In some ways this is true. After all, if you can’t Google it, it’s difficult to spread an idea. But on the other hand, there’s a sense in which a thing that exists only in bytes and pixels doesn’t really exist either.

The medium is part of the message

In writing a book about the importance of attention, space, and stepping away from distraction, the medium became an important part of the message. I decided to create a book/notebook pack that encouraged the kinds of pace and practices that were talked about in the book.

I also found out firsthand that my book worked well as a symbol.

One day I entered the house after work, took off my shoes, and spotted one of the proofs of my own book on the kitchen table.

Pay Attention.

The symbol became a reminder for me to slow down that evening as I greeted my family. To notice, to listen, to pay attention.

So I hope that this little symbol works on others like it’s worked on me. I hope that the printed book carries a little more weight, and that the message goes a little further, or deeper.

So about those Kindles…

It’s hard to deny the benefits that digital books and reading. New technology has made the spread of ideas faster and easier than ever. We’re able to get our hands on a wider variety of content and carry it around in our pocket. It’s incredible.

But I’m also excited for the enduring power of the printed word to give ideas weight and become symbols of the ideas that they present. Now we get to throw all our rough drafts into the world in pixels, and save the printing process for the ideas that need to be given the extra weight.

Do you prefer reading from screens or paper? Have you noticed a difference in how the medium of a book influences how you interact with or remember it?