Good on Paper: The Triumph of Printed Books in the Age of E-Readers

Stephen Doyle (construction) / Grant Cornett

E-readers were supposed to make the bookshelf and its popping contents obsolete. So why are new brick-and-mortar stores up, and physical books selling better than ever? (Plus: how to fall asleep with an e-reader.)

In the months before she opened East City Bookshop in Washington, D.C.’s Capitol Hill neighborhood this April, Laurie Gillman heard a lot of opinions about her new business. Yet, of the hundreds of residents, friends, and total strangers who reached out to her, only a handful questioned the wisdom of opening a brick-and-mortar bookstore in 2016. “It’s been way more positive and exciting than I’d have imagined. Most people said, ‘Of course we need a bookstore!’”

Today, we don’t actually need books or bookstores any more than we need candles or horses. Thanks to advances in digital technology, any piece of writing can now be instantly downloaded to the palm of your hand with a few finger taps for less money, and less space, than was ever possible with paper. In the parlance of Silicon Valley, the book has been thoroughly, utterly disrupted.

But as an object of desire and a cultural force, it’s the book that is doing the disrupting. Since 2014, sales of physical books in the United States have been modestly growing, while e-book sales have actually declined. In cities and towns all across the country, more independent bookstores are now opening than are closing, catering to readers of every taste. Last fall, Amazon opened the first of what will be many brick-and-mortar bookstores. Forget the obituaries for the printed page. The book is back.

The book’s surprising resilience is partly due to the canniness of those in the book business. Publishers refused to give away their products and cannibalize their physical sales for faint digital promises. Companies such as Hachette pushed back against the might of Amazon, drawing a line in the sand. Soon after the big chain stores began disappearing, publishers realized that independent bookstores were their best public advocates, and they made it easier for smaller stores to compete, by offering quicker product turnaround and better discounts.

Bookstores figured that if they could never beat Amazon on price or selection, they had to win with the advantages at hand. They built warm spaces that invited browsing, rather than large warehouses, and programmed daily readings and events catering to the desires of their community. They selected titles not for sheer breadth, but with an eye on the particular tastes of the readers who shopped there, creating a serendipitous book-buying experience that is the opposite of a predictive algorithm. The bookstore shed its utilitarian role as a hawker of paper and reasserted its greater role as a cultural hub. They served coffee, played great music, allowed dogs to roam the aisles of their stores, and beefed up kids’ sections. Bookstores stopped seeing one another as competitors and began supporting one another.

“We really reach out to the community now,” says Karen Hayes, a publishing-industry veteran who opened Parnassus Books in Nashville in 2011 with novelist Ann Patchett. In March, the store launched Parnassus on Wheels, a mobile bookstore that travels to events and farmers’ markets in Nashville. In May, Parnassus doubled the size of its original location to serve growing demand. “I don’t think the bookstore model ever really went out of favor,” Hayes says. “This is the original model.”

Business models and industry economics can explain a part of the book’s resurgence, but there’s something deeper going on here. The book is back because we invited its return. The digital alternatives to paper volumes, in the form of e-readers like the Kindle and Kobo, and the digital downloads accessible on any phone and tablet, are already well established, competitively priced, and technologically sound. In theory, the advantages they offer over printed pages should have made them the triumphant reading formats, but that’s not what seems to be happening. Increasingly, readers are turning back to the printed word, even after using digital reading devices for years. They are doing so for reasons that are highly practical. Books may be heavy, costly, and relatively static, but they are more durable, flexible, and suited to the way we like to read. They engage not just our eyes but all five senses with texture, sound, smell, and even the taste of paper stock on the tip of a finger. Numerous studies show we prefer reading and learning on paper.

“People still want print, still want to shop and be with like-minded people,” says Nancy Bass Wyden, the third-generation owner of New York’s famous Strand Book Store, which is busier today than at any time over the past nine decades. “I don’t see how that will ever change.” Like many bookstores, the Strand has been adept at leveraging digital tools to proselytize book culture to a wider audience. The store’s social media channels have more than 60,000 followers apiece, and its Instagram feed is a constantly changing trove of literary lifestyle images, because nowadays books are as much an aspirational ideal as they are something to read.

Our stubborn preference for books seems illogical. But so does the notion that books are simple repositories of data whose form is irrelevant. That ignores the fundamental human emotions we ascribe to printed matter. Whether you are a child chewing on your first copy of The Very Hungry Caterpillar or a rare-books dealer securing a first edition of Moby Dick, these are objects imbued with a romance that few other possessions can match. We draw pleasure from their presence, taking pride in the lovingly assembled bookshelves in living rooms and stacks by our beds. Each book we pick up and read is another building block laid onto our cultural foundation, holding up lives rich with knowledge, soul, and joy.

The Cure for Kindle Insomnia

We've heard it before, but staring at screens before bed is killing our sleep. Here’s the science: When we see the short wavelengths of bluish light that radiate from most screens, our brains are tricked into thinking it’s daytime and block the secretion of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin. E-reader converts, take solace: New tablets and smartphones increasingly include software that promises to filter out these offending wavelengths, making it easier to look at screens without totally compromising our slumber. Amazon’s Kindle Fire line of tablets, for example, now features a Blue Shade mode that does just this, while a recent iOS update endows iPhones and iPads with a similar option called Night Shift. As evening falls, these features gradually banish the blue, giving your screen a reddish hue—maybe not ideal if you’re doing design work or watching a movie, but a boon for those who like to be lulled to sleep by a good book. —Seth Porges