Every time I have written a post dedicated to my bookshelf over the years, I have gotten at least one comment politely suggesting that I get an e-reader. E-readers can save you money and shelf space, as well as the work of packing up boxes of books when it comes time to move. An e-reader also would have come in handy for me when I was covertly reading all those atheist books back in my closeted days. But for how difficult it was to disguise my God Delusion book, and how heavy all the boxes were when I moved, I wouldn’t trade my books for anything.
If you prefer to use audiobooks or e-readers, I truly do not have a problem with that. I just want to let you in on the fact that as a rule, they’re not for me. And like all rules, this one has its exceptions. The only time I have really strayed from my preference for physical books is when I’ve chosen audiobooks to play on long car rides to pass the time. For example, last summer my husband and I listened to Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility in the car. Many books can be enhanced when you get the full experience of hearing the author read their words to you, but the narrator of White Fragility made the book feel boring when it should not have been.
Contrast my experience listening to White Fragility with my experience reading Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want To Talk About Race the week prior. Oluo’s book is a great resource as it is, with each chapter being dedicated to a different question that someone might ask in trying to understand racism. It’s proved invaluable as a book that I can continually pick up and refer to, especially since its questions frequently come up in conversations of race. On the other hand, when trying to reference White Fragility, the best I can come up with is, “I think I remember this from White Fragility, but don’t quote me on it.”
Having books as a resource has proved useful for me time and time again, whether it’s in conversations or for blog posts. When I wrote my review of Bart Ehrman’s When Jesus Became God, I was reminded of something I had read years ago in Mere Christianity. It was so convenient for me to be able to pluck the apologetics book right off the shelf and see not only the exact quote I wanted, but also the note I had scribbled in the margin the moment I first read it. Direct quotes from other books, like Ian Tattersall’s Masters of the Planet, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and The Demon-Haunted World, and Bart Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist? have made appearances in multiple blog posts, which was only made possible by my ability to reach over and pick them up long after having read them.
My appreciation for the permanence of books that I own also brings me to why I don’t borrow books from libraries. I don’t criticize libraries the same way that I criticize e-books, because they truly do so much good for their communities. They make books accessible for those who can’t afford to keep them. But I think there is something special in knowing that a book is mine. I try and support libraries in my own way, which is that I often buy books at their seasonal sales. I love to buy a 50¢ book from a library, see the big red letters “DISCARD” on the inside cover, and remove that clear library jacket as the book begins its second life on my shelf.
So if I just want a book to be mine, and I want to be able to go back and check for quotes, then why not try an e-reader? Well, what I’m about to say is probably controversial. I always write in my books. I underline, I write in the margins, and in certain toxic or anti-science books, I scribble things out and write profanities across the page. For long books like Stamped from the Beginning, I would bracket entire paragraphs and make a note that “this is where he defines XYZ.” (However, I realized only recently how incredible it is to actually use the index in a book. No more flipping through the pages.) Reading with a pencil in hand, underlining, and scribbling questions and thoughts makes reading feel so interactive. I’m sure you can highlight and add notes in an e-reader, but it really wouldn’t have that same personal effect.
While I don’t have a particular problem with the idea of people using e-readers, audiobooks, or library books, there is one thing that has been advertised to me that I do take issue with. Apps like Blinkist provide broad 15-minute overviews of nonfiction (primarily business and mindfulness) books for those who find them boring or too time-consuming. I understand that especially if you have a hectic life, you might not have the time or energy to read nonfiction books cover to cover. There are great ways to get a good understanding of a book without fully committing, like reading reviews or watching author interviews. The difference between these methods and Blinkist is that they don’t exist to replace the book for you, but rather to help you decide whether you want to read it or not. An even starker difference between these snippets and Blinkist is that they don’t cost you $100 a year for a limited selection of bare-bones, dumbed-down “book trailers”.
So even if they’re heavy, even if they have taken over my office, I’m sticking with my physical books. My fellow readers already know all the other reasons that I haven’t yet mentioned for why I opt for the real thing. Digital books don’t give you the smell, the sound of the page flipping, or the pride that you feel as the pages grow on the left and shrink on the right. They don’t allow you to scribble down your unsolicited feedback or absentmindedly fiddle with the pages as you read. They don’t give you the experience of wandering in a used book store for hours, taking in the sights and smells as you literally weigh your options. They don’t provide that built-in Zoom background either, instantly making your room look cozier, while simultaneously lending it your personality.
As for me and my house, we will happily “lug” around these tomes that bring us so much joy.