Why I Buy Physical Books

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.”

I really enjoy the view from my desk. Bookshelves also line the wall behind me.

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.

From page 13 of Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot.

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”.

When you can’t make it to the bookstore,
you bring the bookstore to you.

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.

13 thoughts on “Why I Buy Physical Books

  • Hi, Rebekah. Good article.

    We all have to find what works for us.

    When I was growing up I was taught to never write in books, dog-ear the pages, or break the spines, among other things. “Wash your hands before you open that book.” Notebooks are for making notes.

    I buy the books that are important to me or that I think maybe will have lasting importance in hardcover. I don’t buy paperback unless that is all I can find a particular book in. When Bob Woodward’s Fear came out I bought the Kindle version while I waited for the hardcover to come out. So far this year, I have bought Four Hundred Souls in hardcopy/hardcover.

    When I read books on Kindle I can highlight and make all the notes I want right along with those highlighted passages/sentences/words. Also, I can get out-of-print books from Project Gutenberg. (Gutenberg.com) Wonderful place. Everything is free but they accept donations.

    The New York Times Magazine The 1619 Project
    Thriftbooks, because I can’t always afford the new book.
    shakespeare’dot’mit’dot’edu/index’dot’html
    Archives’dot’gov

    The internet is an endless resource. I’m not going to cut myself off from any of these tools.

    I don’t think I have ever seen a movie that was better than the book it was based on.

    This is what works for me. Yes, my eyes are bloodshot and weepy. Sometimes the print just disappears.

    “You knew I was verbose when you took me in.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes!! I LOVE Thriftbooks by the way. And to be clear I won’t write in a book that is old/valuable. When I read “The Causes and Cures of Unbelief” and “The ABCs of Evolution” which I reviewed last spring, I kept my notes in a separate notebook. I also can’t write in a book with plasticky pages. I did not write at all in Sapiens, and for both Cosmos and Pale Blue Dot, I would read and mark up a paperback version and go back and look at all the full color images in the hardcovers, haha

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  • Good stuff Rebekah! There’s nothing like the actual book in your hands, then putting it up on your library shelf when done! I use a read occasionally if I want to see if it’s a book I’d really enjoy owning, then I buy and read the hardcover.

    Liked by 2 people

  • Absolutely agree on physical books. The last thing I want to do at the end of a day (or the middle of the day if I’m taking a break from screens) is stare at another screen to read. I stare at computer screens and zoom calls for work, TV screens for shows and movies, phone screens for everything from checking directions to recipes so when I want to read a book–fiction, nonfiction, whatever–I want to hold a physical book in my hands and read it. I like to collect books too and hunt down special and first editions. Or loan books to friends. Or take a cheap paperback to the beach and not worry if it gets wet. I’m happy for people to read more as much as they can and if a Kindle works best for them than have at it. It’s just not for me. I love a stack of library books too if it’s just to explore a title or subject and I don’t need to keep them for later re-reading or referencing. And I like to sell a book or trade it for another if it’s used up it’s purpose for me.

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  • Thanks for the thoughtful description of the advantages of physical books. You might add that long after they are read the first time, they remain a thing (and a reminder) in the reader’s daily environment. They can be pulled down and thumbed through, providing a connection to a past that made us who we are.

    Liked by 1 person

  • I use my kindle to read library books and love it for that but am 100% with you on physical books. I just finished The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes on kindle and have owned the full hunger games trilogy on kindle for years, but reading the prequel made me want to add the full series to my list to buy. Books are worth the money for sure

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  • I also love physical books, but I have an e-reader as well and use it a lot. I’ve always been a heavy user of the library, especially for books that I consider light reading. There’s a lot of books, especially novels, that I want to read once, but have no need of having a physical copy. My e-reader is an extension of that, and I can check out library books for it, and always have something to read with me. I’ve never actually bought a book for my e-reader! I have limited storage space, so I’m pickier about which physical books I own, and most of the ones I actually buy are non-fiction that I do want to keep around for reference.

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    • I have unfortunately bought a lot of books that I have ended up selling before ever reading them, so this is something I’m still trying to figure out. I’m trying now to either research a book very well or try to get a cheap copy, but I am not afraid of getting rid of anything I don’t like.

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  • I am using my tablet more and more over time. For one, I had way too many books. When I moved from California to Illinois I had 25 boxes of books left over, in that I didn’t have shelves for (and I have a lot of book cases . . . a lot).

    The e-reader I use allows highlight and page bookmarking. When I want to use the book for research, I can open it in an app on my computer and skip between the bookmarks and/or highlights (there are four different colors that can be used for highlights so I have a color-code system. So, I do not have to deface a physical book, which I was always reluctant to do.

    There are problems, however. I have hundreds if not thousands of e-books. Currently they are on a hidden bookshelf because I have to scroll through all of them to find a book or use a fairly lame search function. The need of a filing system is great! Having folders for different types of books would make finding the danged things much, much easier. Plus the full set resides on “the cloud” and only those you have downloaded are immediately available to read. (When you search for a book, you can limit the search to those downloaded or all titles. If you have a lot of titles, those searches can be slow.)

    Things are better now than in the beginning. A thousand books takes up no more space than my tablet (hooray). Presumably things will also get better as the reader software becomes more friendly. And . . . I still buy physical books because (a) not all older books have e-versions, (b) I still love the physical feel (and smell, and . . . ) of a paper book, and (c) I have small collections of physical books by certain authors that I am maintaining. But, I have found myself buying inexpensive e-books to replace the hardcopies I have sold on or given away. I do like to re-read books (some dozens of times). Getting a $0.99 or $1.99 replacement is almost a gift. (Many authors sell their earlier books for a pittance as a teaser to get you to like their work and then buy their more recent (and more expensive) books.

    All of these are, of course, wonderful problems to have. I recommend you give some of these e-books a try, maybe on a vacation when taking a dozen books with you would be awkward. You don’t need to buy anything. If you have a largish smartphone or a tablet, there are apps you can use to read e-books. (I use the Kindle app mostly.)

    Enjoy, my friend.

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