Thank God for books – and the printed word

From my earliest beginnings books have had a special place in my life. Born during the Second World War – a German plane was shot down along the road on the day of my birth – the first night of my life was spent under a ‘Morrison table’ (a home air-raid shelter) with my father’s books! Later as a child I loved to sit with my father in his study, where the walls were lined with books.

Not surprisingly our home today overflows with books – in our sitting room and our drawing room we have books galore; in our bedrooms books abound; in Caroline’s office two walls are lined with books; while at the top of the house I am blessed with a ‘library’ of around 2000 – 3000 books. Goodness knows what we will do with our books if we have to downsize!

I can’t imagine a life without books, and can understand why the Argentine writer, Jorge Luis Borges, said: “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of Library”. Hence my sense of distress when I heard of a British theological college deciding to stop ordering printed books for their library. In future they will only order electronic books.

Change of course is a fact of life. As the ancient Greek Heraclitus said, “Everything changes and nothing remains still… one cannot step twice in the same stream”. The printed word has only been with us since Johann Gutenberg began experimenting with a printing press and moveable type around 1440. The Apostle Paul, for instance, had to make do with only scrolls and parchment: see 2 Tim 4:13: “When you come, bring… the books (biblia) and the parchments (membranai)”. So is the move to digital just another example of what John Kennedy called “the law of life”? “Those who look to the past or present”, said Kennedy, “are certain to miss the future”.

When Amazon brought out the first Kindle in 2007, which could download books directly from the Amazon Kindle store, the future seemed to have arrived. People began to buy Kindles in their droves. By 2012 e-books accounted for around 25% of the revenue of many American publishers. But in 2013/2014 things began to level off and then to decline so that e-books in the USA were accounting for just 15% of total trade. Although the growth of e-books in the UK never reached the same levels, there has been a similar pattern of growth and then decline. Although during the pandemic the sales of e-books in the UK grew, printed books still ‘rule the roost’. In 2020, for instance, while 20% of people in the UK bought an e-book, 48.7% bought a printed book. I am told that millennials (those born between 1981 and 1986) tend to favour printed books too.

However, much depends on the kind of genre of book. According to Prof John Thompson, who recently published Book Wars: The Digital Revolution in Publishing (2021), fiction books dealing with romance, mystery, and science fiction accounted for around 40-50% of sales by 2014, whereas non-fiction books account for a much smaller percentage. In some categories like children’s books, travel books and cookery books, e-books never took off at all..

Clearly, there are some advantages to e-books. In the first place, e-books take up less space than print books – with modern homes and modern studies becoming ever smaller, this can be a real boon. Secondly, e-books are less expensive than print books, although the price gap is not necessarily massive – my latest book retails at £14.99, with the electronic version only £3 cheaper. Thirdly, for students writing essays, when it comes to quoting an author, e-books offer the facility of cut and paste. Fourthly, e-books are more environmentally friendly, because unlike print books trees do not have to be felled. Fifthly, for those doing research in particular, e-books have the advantage of being immediately available – when I was doing my PhD many moons ago, I had sometimes to wait weeks until I could lay my hands on foreign book or journal.

However, there are some real disadvantages in reading e-books. John Thompson, for instance, writes:

The printed book is both an excellent reading device that allows for a high-quality reading experience – better in the eyes of many than the experience of reading long-form text on a screen – and an aesthetically cultural object that is valued in and for itself, as something to be handled, admired, and enjoyed.

Although I like the ‘feel’ of a printed book, I can see that there are times when an e-book is preferable. On long-haul flights to Australia or NZ I have often used a Kindle to read a ‘thriller’. However, when it comes to study, e-books have their limitations. In a recent American university survey, 92% found they concentrated better when reading a print book. As a result, we have greater capacity to absorb information from a print book.

It is very easy just to ‘skim’ an e-book. This in turn can lead to a lack of discernment. In a 2018 interview with neuroscientist Marayanne Wolf, New Zealand journalist Sally Blundell noted that:

If people are skim, skim skimming and not going deeper to understand the complexity of issues, they will be far more attracted to false news or worse.

By contrast, the printed text encourages ‘deep reading’. As Lisa Allcott  wrote recently:

My reading is quite different when I’m online. I skim the text quickly, looking for keywords that might relate to what I’m researching rather than settling in for a long read. I often print online articles so that I can read them in hard copy because I find that easier to concentrate on.

That too is my experience: whenever I come across a good article on the web, I always print it out so that I can think more carefully about it.

Certainly, when it comes to reading commentaries in preparation for a sermon, printed book wins ‘hands down’. It is so much easier to engage meaningfully with Scripture . On the other hand, if I am looking for illustrations or for up-to-date statistics, then I am more than happy to browse the web. Similarly, when it comes to reading the Scriptures on a personal basis, I much prefer to use the printed text – particularly if I am wanting to slowly meditate on God’s Word.

To conclude. For an academic institution to give up on printed books surely beggars belief. The college may save space and money, but they are doing no favours to their students, who may well be less equipped to lead God’s people in the future.

3 comments

  1. Paul, I agree about physical books. However one advantage of an e-book is if my wife can’t sleep, she sits up in bed and reads a book on her iPad, set to white print on a black background so it doesn’t disturb me. On the other hand if I can’t sleep and want to read I have to get up & go into another room and turn the light on! I do, however, admit to reading your blog without printing it out first – and I don’t think I skimmed through it. But don’t test me on it!

  2. Morena Paul,
    A book about books and reading that I hugely recommend is Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies by Marilyn Chandler McEntyre (Eerdmans). From the publicity….

    “Like any other life-sustaining resource,” says Marilyn McEntyre, “language can be depleted, polluted, contaminated, eroded, and filled with artificial stimulants.” Today more than ever, language needs to be rescued and restored. Drawing on a wide range of sources, both critical and literary, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies is an engaging address to everyone concerned with preserving the vitality and precision of the spoken and written word. “If every literate person in the United States read this book, the result could dramatically transform our society. . . . Written with modesty, keen insight, and grace, Marilyn McEntyre’s Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies proposes a revolution of human expression that would bring precision, honesty, and felicity to the spoken and written discourse of contemporary culture.”

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