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The Deathlessness Of Paper

Nicholas Carr says that everybody was predicting the end of printed books in the era of the Internet, but it turns out that everybody was wrong:

There are new facts, equally hard, which suggest that words will continue to appear on sheets of paper for a good long while. Ebook sales, which skyrocketed after the launch of Amazon’s Kindle in late 2007, have fallen back to earth in recent months, and sales of physical books have remained surprisingly resilient. Printed books still account for about three-quarters of overall book sales in the United States, and if sales of used books, which have been booming, are taken into account, that percentage probably rises even higher. A recent survey revealed that even the biggest fans of e-books continue to purchase a lot of printed volumes.

Periodicals have had a harder go of it, thanks to the profusion of free alternatives online and the steep declines in print advertising. But subscriptions to print magazines seem to be stabilizing. Although some publications are struggling to survive, others are holding on to their readers. Digital subscriptions, while growing smartly, still represent only a tiny slice of the market, and a lot of magazine readers don’t seem eager to switch to e-versions. A survey of owners of iPads and other tablet computers, conducted last year, found that three-quarters of them still prefer to read magazines on paper. There are even some glimmers in the beleaguered newspaper business. The spread of paywalls and the bundling of print and digital subscriptions appear to be tempering the long-term decline in print circulation. A few major papers have even gained some print readers of late.

What’s striking is that the prospects for print have improved even as the use of media-friendly mobile computers and apps has exploded. If physical publications were dying, you would think their condition should be deteriorating rapidly now, not stabilizing.

Carr goes on to say that the differences between reading information in traditional bound form and reading it electronically go beyond the tactile.

I think he’s onto something. Recently, I ordered a copy of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time Of Gifts, and made sure to get it in paperback. Most of the books I buy nowadays come over my Kindle app. That’s because I want to start reading them right that instant, and because I anticipate that once having read the book, I’ll never read it again (therefore it won’t be important to me to have a copy on my shelves). With the PLF book, though, I knew from the preview chapter I read online that it was going to be a special book that I wanted to keep. More importantly — and this is what Carr is talking about — I wanted to experience it in the traditional way.

That is, I knew the writing itself was especially rich, and the topic of the book — the author’s trek through Europe between the wars — was something I was especially interested in. For me, reading books in print makes the reading experience more savory. I enjoy lying in bed with the soft glow of my reading lamp illuminating the page, but more than that, it seems to be an altogether more satisfying experience, for reasons I struggle to articulate, but definitely feel.

We are longtime subscribers to the New Yorker, and have been getting it both in print and online for as long as the digital version was available. I got into the habit of reading it online because the digital version is available instantly, while the print version takes a few days to get to us through the mail. On the occasion that I would forget to read the online version in a given week, and would be surprised by the print version, I would opt for print — and it was a much more enjoyable experience. We recently renewed our subscription, but only for the digital version, and I’m wondering if that was a mistake. I think it might have been. We get Saveur magazine, the beautiful photographs in which are a big part of its pleasure, as well as the recipes. I cannot imagine preferring digital over print for that magazine. In fact, the digital version of that magazine doesn’t appeal to me at all. To be sure, I’m not saying its digital version (if it has one) is not good; I’m saying that aesthetically and practically (because chances are the mag will end up in the kitchen, speckled with sauce, as I cook from it), print has it all over digital for Saveur. I vastly prefer reading magazines as magazines, and don’t anticipate ever again subscribing to the digital version of any magazine.

Several years ago, when we lived in Philly, we canceled print delivery of The New York Times when they went up again on the price. We’ve been digital subscribers since then. There’s nothing in the print edition that we can’t get in the digital edition, but if I had the opportunity to resubscribe in print (we can’t get it where we live now), I would do it today. Right this second. Why? Because we miss the ritual of reading the Times in print, especially on Sunday. And because I was a lot better informed when I read it in print, versus on the iPad. That’s because the format exposed me to more information than the online version does. I was more likely to learn something I didn’t necessarily want to know, or anticipate knowing, simply because of the layout of the print product, and because of the way one has to consume it. I never click on the Science section of the Times digital version. I never missed the Science section of the print version. And truth to tell, I cannot remember the last time I read the digital Times in an orderly way — that is, section by section. Nothing is stopping me from doing that, of course, but I am disinclined to do that. I’m online all day long, and the reception of news and information is a chaotic process. I find that I miss the more orderly, old-fashioned presentation of the news. It seems to me that I had a better handle on it when I read the newspaper in print.

Is that an illusion, a relic of the way my 47-year-old brain was formatted by the era into which I was born? Maybe. Nicholas Carr says no, it might simply be a fact of our biology.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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