Why Physical Books are Magical

A post with a proposal, edited by Compound Writers.

Why Physical Books are Magical

Debate abounds whether physical books are superior to digital books. For clarity: I DON’T CARE. Truth is complex. Truth is contextual.

Digital books are better for the right people at the right time.

This is not about them. This is not about the cons of digital books; it’s about the pros of physical books OR why they're still good.

I found five reasons to buy physical books:

  1. No ebook available. (Tell me it’s a cop-out, I dare you.)
  2. Physical design. (Colorful images, textures, dense graphs, numerous footnotes, portability, general aesthetic, signatures, sensuality, etc.)
  3. Charity.
  4. Gifts.
  5. Memento.

Thanks to authors footnoted1, I found five more reasons:

  1. Sensory.
  2. Affordable.
  3. Teachable.
  4. Unplugged.
  5. Infinite.

1. No Ebooks Available!

I most frequently buy physical books because I can’t get them electronically. I can’t get them online when they’re old, and especially, academic. If I want old, academic books, I need to scour eBay listings and thrift-shop shelves for days.

2. Design.

Every feature of a book’s aesthetic serves to enhance your experience of it. Vibrant waxen photos in a National Geographic compendium, deep textures from a DK book of maps, 3-D pages of a Disney pop-up book, spinning ASCII-like poetry sprawled symbolically in a Mark Daniewlski masterwork, 388 endnotes of inimitable subtext from Infinite Jest, or an Audubon field guide stuck in your back pocket for quick reference; there are a thousand ways to please with an IRL book.2 Or, you know, a simple signature does the trick. Conversely, a poorly designed book cover alone is cause to never catch the wandering readers’ eye.

3. Charity.

Though that’s not exactly why I buy them. When physical books associate with a charity, I buy them.3 Likewise, if there’s a local book drive, I’ll buy a horde of good ones to donate.4 Plus, a single physical book can gain value through every hand it passes through. I might read a book, write notes, then donate it to a stranger who might get more value than I did. That stranger can do the same. Little Free Libraries are the perfect example of this unique kind of generosity.

4. Gifts.

The very best gifts. The kind of gift that requires you to know someone so intimately you can connect their problems to a palliative world of words. All my favorite books were recommendations and all my favorite recommendations become gifts.

5. Memento.

I have four favorite books. Each faces me as I type this right now.5 They remind me that life is illogical and absurd and short, but worth living for love and for learning. After I read anything sufficiently impactful, I buy it to add to my future dream home-library so they can stare forever into my personal abyss.

6. Sensory.

You feel immediate feedback when you handle a book. The smoky, vanilla smell as you crack old binding, tender touch as you flip pages, soft sounds of your fingers on paper, each word scanned the book weighs heavier in your hands and on your heart as your eyes take in near-calligraphic pages for detail after tense detail.

Robert Ellis

“I find digital books completely unsatisfying. I miss the texture and smell of a physical book, the aesthetics of the design and the cover.”

Joel Christiansen

“When I think of book consumption, I think of the smell, the binding, the paper, the cover/sleeve, the heft, the typography, consumption of shelf space, etc. five senses.”

7. Affordable.

Even with exorbitant shipping costs, most used books are five dollars or less. Digital books, unless torrented, maintain full sticker price as long as they live. Or worse, they fall prey to the same cheap game mechanics as the rest of the ‘free’ market.

Yishi Zuo

“Frugality - I buy 10-20 books a year - I almost always buy used - sometimes for $0.99 + $4 shipping - so average cost is somewhere in mid single digits - tends to be cheaper than digital version.”

8. Teachable.

You can write on them, in them, and around them. Memories more easily form from reading physical books than digital copies.6 And at least one paper shows reading comprehension is higher for longer, denser physical texts.7 Because our brains comprehend the written word with navigational cognitive structures that parse your place in a book, on the page, and in the plot, physical books enable readers to better understand the content.

Trevor McKendrick

“I usually remember reading physical books better - something about different sizes, fonts, paper, etc. - vs a Kindle where it’s all identical text.”

Michael Shafer

“Schools moving to digital text books seems harder to learn from. Jotting notes or scribbling formulae on a page work better for me. Photo books are always more powerful than a thumb drive of jpegs.”

9. Unplugged.

Unplugged means peaceful. Distraction-less. Disconnected from the quick chaos of social pressure. Transportation into the information universe safeguards you from losing sanity in our increasingly hyperconnected maelstrom of attention-seekers out to get us. Focusing on one thing feels good.8

Queen Lizzy

“I buy physical books because it also helps me reduce my screen time while doing something productive. Hours spent on the screen and the damage it can do to the eyes and attention. With a book, I can always go back easily.”

Lyle McKeany

“I think a lot of it depends on your goals for reading. I read physical books as a way to unplug.”

10. Infinite.

Physical books last forever. They have infinite charge. You can bring them places you wouldn’t bring your best friends.9 You can rely on them more than you can trust Tom Hanks. They truly last forever, unlike any of us.

Steven Ovadia

“I prefer print because it's less distracting, it's more portable, doesn't require a charge, and [is] easier to skim and flip through. Digital books wind up sitting on a device, and I'm guessing so many are [un]read, because people have no idea what they have.”

Nick Drage

“The benefits of the physical book format are often underplayed, and dismissed as just being traditional or nostalgic when there's so much to say about such a portable, resilient and distraction-free format.”

Bonus Section: Bibliophilia.

Physical books are love.

Ever crack the door to a used bookstore on a long trip to the middle of nowhere? You creep around each corner wondering what it will hold. Then, when you deign down to the underground and scoop up your first ancient eldritch horror story, you find a creased flower between two pages left by some long-dead library lover. ~Cue inspection~ You find a month’s worth of marginalia lining the generous space between paragraph and page end. Sickly sweet words. Powerful definitions. Memories from a life past. And then, when you’ve had your fill of nostalgic enlightenment, you put it down to find what you were really looking for: that obscure late 80’s academic text your local uni won’t even hold anymore. And of course the 1800’s proto-erotic fiction you hide from your family, friends, and lovers.

But whether you’re playing ‘find the weirdest book combo’ with your SO, breathing in plumes of playboy dust while hiding your arousal, or blocking an aisle to read an entire Astro Boy manga, being surrounded by books is a consummate experience. One that is impossible online. You’ll never quite catch the feeling of a good bookstore electronically. At least until VR catches up to reality.

A Proposal.

The idea for this article came from an impulse to launch a lifelong desire: a hybrid tea shop bookstore. When I thought about how to compete in the Amazon epoch, my first instinct was to open a chain of hyper-niche specialty stores honing in on one overarching idea like Cognitive Science then strategically build them near their largest audience, in this case, Rutgers (arguably where Cognitive Science started). Then I realized all the books I bought recently had a few common denominators. So, if anyone agrees with even a fraction of the above-listed purchase purposes (with emphasis on reasons: design and ebook unavailability) who might know how to build an online publishing house from scratch (rare, I know) email me. I’d love a partner.

Afterwords.

Digital books are almost necessarily lower value than physical books. I say almost because digital books can have hyperlinks and soon, bidirectional links, to relevant auxiliary content in a way that is physically impossible. Other than that, digital books are the raw form of a physical book. Unsmelted ore. Written in a word editor, then published to the world, no additional value but e-print on an e-page. Meanwhile, to make a physical book, authors must pitch countless publishers facing rejection dozens of times before their lucky break. But the reward is clear. Physical books contain the same information as an ebook, but add the rare value of isolation, deep transportation, enhanced memory, and sensory engagement like no other experience out there.

A ‘library-sized’ THANKS to Kyla Scanlon, Joel Christiansen, Steven Ovadia, and Lyle McKeany for editing this unstructured waterfall into a well-ordered word weavery.


1. Steven Ovadia, Lyle McKeany, Yishi Zuo, Trevor McKendrick, Dan Hunt, Ryan Williams, Robert Ellis, Michael Shafer, Queen Lizzy, and Nick Drage from the mysterious, wonderful Compound Writing group.
2. I’d add links to each book listed here, but seeing the design online is just not the same.
3.Derek Sivers’ recent book sales are a great example.
4. Before you think I’m a suspiciously good person, note I grew up across the street from a library that frequently sold books, sometimes brand new, for outrageous discounts. I’m just repaying the favor.
5. Tim Ferriss mentions this habit all the time on his podcast. Dan Hunt is a similar proponent.
6. Reading linear texts on paper versus computer screen: Effects on reading comprehension
7. That same paper notes research that readers feel more pleasure from physical books. Surprisingly, results are age-agnostic.
8. See Deep Work or more generally, the benefits of meditation.
9. Important example: the toilet.