How Do We Feel About Our Books?

“The Death of the Book” is an-always interesting topic. Yesterday we took a look at some thoughts from The Guardian. For a bit of recent-historical perspective, let’s also look at The Guardian: “The Death of the Book, Again” from way back, in 2007:

“It is an immutable law that the Death of the Book must be debated at least once a year. Latest up is Margaret Atwood, talking at the London Book Fair in a seminar apocalyptically titled: Digitise or Die.”

I remember Margaret Atwood’s comments on technology and books quite well — mostly also because I remember the Long Pen. See: Guardian, “Book Signing of the Times” and New York Times, “Theme of London Book Fair is What Technology Can Do.” On that sort of long distance author interaction, she famously remarked: “I’m not a rock star … The book is the interaction.”

In addition to Margaret Atwood*, were some insights from Stanford’s Philip Zimbardo** who provides a bit of a psychologist’s insight into our attachment to the printed book:

“the most profound emotional strike came from another of Marr’s guests, Philip Zimbardo, who said, very simply, of the book: “It’s something you hold, near to your heart.”

I believe that the jury is still out about the emotional involvement about reading the words upon a printed page or upon a screen. If a medium such as film can somehow transmute the image into emotion, why shouldn’t words upon a screen be able to do the same thing?

“The book is an artefact of the heart. Because the mind responds more viscerally and profoundly to words on paper, it gets an emotional charge, a deep connection with the characters, a yearning desire to know the ending that is not found on a screen.

Books hold our personal histories; our bookshelves are the record of our lives.”

But, I will agree that there is an emotional attachment to the physical object that is a book. It’s a physical thing that we’ve spent time with and handled. I suspect that part of this is that the book itself becomes a part of the emotional residue that comes from our experience of reading what’s in the book —

“The physical act of opening a pristine novel, getting the scent of it in our nostrils, and yes, holding it close to our heart, are sensory and uniquely human experiences. We carry books to show who we are, to impress new crushes, to protect us when dining alone; we take down an old favourite down when we are shattered from heartbreak, or demoralised by illness, or overwhelmed by life.

As my friend the Man of Letters says, “I wonder if anyone has ever cried while reading an e-book.”

It’s easy to try and dismiss the emotional attachment to the book-as-object as too outmoded or maudlin. But, the truth of the matter is that people form all sorts of emotional attachments to weird things. Cars. iPads. Pillows. Why not books?

Some think that the proliferation of digital words will empty the printed word of all meaning. Others, the iPad is half-full types, might think that it could have the opposite effect — perhaps the physical becomes more valued as a result:

“But the counter-intuitive twist in the ubiquity of words on the screen, of the massive amount of undifferentiated print on the web, may be that we stop taking the book for granted and start realising that it is something rare and marvellous.”

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* If you’re interested on more of Margaret Atwood’s thoughts on ebooks, check out eBookNewser: “Margaret Atwood Compares Authors to Dead Moose.” She somewhat refreshingly seems to be as ambivalent as most of us when it comes to print books vs. ebooks, but — “Comparing a dead author to a dead moose, which feeds an ecosystem of more than three dozen animals, Atwood warns, “Never eliminate your primary source.”

** Bonus: Here is Phil Zimbardo’s visit to Authors@Google. A great talk.


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

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