Today, the planet is what we mourn. At the beginning of this millennium, though, the obituaries were for reading. The first smartphones had us squinting over predictions that even if images didn’t kill words, short forms would kill long. Articles and blog posts alike braced readers to lose the abilities books had once helped us to cultivate: to follow a demanding idea from start to finish, to look beyond the day’s news, to be alone.
Here’s what happened instead. Sales of printed books rebounded in the decade that followed – rising as steadily as electronic books sales leveled off. In the US, 2011 was the first year in which more ebooks were sold than hardbacks; by 2016, though, hardbacks were outstripping ebooks once again. And since most of the books we read weren’t bought yesterday, it may be even more telling that in that same year, twice as many Americans read glued or sewn woodpulp than read an electronic book. Last year, book sale revenue from hardbacks and paperbacks outstripped revenue from ebooks by more than $3,000 million. Also in 2018, the Association of American Publishers reported revenues from hardcover sales up about 3.5 per cent, with revenue from digital books down nearly as much. And in December of that year, gift-givers found best-selling titles ranging from a Richard Powers novel to a Frederick Douglass biography on backorder. One culprit turned out to be that most old-fashioned of crises: a paper shortage.
It’s true that bookstore sales and revenues have declined in the past decade. But the fact that the dip began right after the 2008 recession suggests that the culprit is financial, not technological. And it’s true that a third of Americans in their late teens and twenties reported reading an e-book in 2017, twice the rate of their counterparts over 65. But the youngest Americans believe, at least, that printed books won’t die off when their grandparents do. While in 2012, 60 per cent of 6- to 17-year-olds surveyed had predicted they would always prefer print to e-books, by 2016, that number had climbed a modest but significant 5 per cent.
Like book-owning, book-borrowing continues to gain new converts. In 2016, the Pew Trust found that adults under 35 were likelier than their elders to use a library. One explanation is that parents of young children remain the most frequent visitors, but another is that libraries themselves were changing. Long providers of tax advice and public bathrooms, imaginative librarians now lent out interview suits and fondue sets. Librarians lobbied for public access to research findings; they taught patrons to assess the legitimacy of new sources; they offered floor space to patrons unhoused by the hurricanes intensified by a warming climate.
Scientific journals, meanwhile, swelled with studies of print. National health institutes funded randomized trials to test whether reading raises serotonin levels, lowers body-mass indexes, or combats insomnia and Alzheimer’s. As scientific journals migrated online, their contents began to compare print-reading with screen-reading, book-reading with magazine-reading, fiction-reading with non-fiction-reading, literature-reading with the reading of whatever genres were identified as antonyms to the literary. Some credited the curative power of reading to its content (books whose characters ate healthfully seemed to curb their readers’ snacking), but others focused instead on its medium (print vs online), its scale (immersive prose vs snippeted listicles), or its life expectancy (durable books as opposed to ephemeral articles).
Thus reading garnered testimonials from an unlikely quarter: science. Or more precisely, Science. In 2013, that journal published a study concluding that reading about fictional characters correlates with more sophisticated theory of mind. More specifically, reading about characters in formally ambitious “literary” fiction did – the authors discovered that experimental subjects were better at identifying the emotions expressed on faces or at understanding others’ false beliefs when they had just read prizewinning short stories than when they had just read less esthetically ambitious popular fiction.
This latest version of the centuries-old attempt to distinguish trashy escapism from intellectually challenging and therefore morally respectable fiction was widely reported by journalists with their own investment in reading.
Neuroscientists drilled down, wedging readers inside MRI scanners to measure novels’ effect on brain function and structure. Social scientists scaled up: psychologist Steven Pinker’s 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature correlated a centuries-long decline in violence with an increase in fiction-reading. Some studies measured effects on health; others on wealth; yet others on civic virtue. Back in 2004, data aggregated by the NEH suggested that Americans who read outside of work and school were likeliest to vote and volunteer. Four years later, a meta-analysis connected the frequency with which Canadians read books to the rate at which they donated and helped their neighbors. Also in 2008, a British study correlated pleasure reading inversely with divorce. Madame Bovary would have been surprised.
One explanation is that today’s book boosters stack the deck by assuming a best-case scenario in which all printed books were great, and all reading rapt. Essayist Sven Birkerts complains that when his students open their laptops, “I pretend they are taking course-related notes, but would not be surprised to find out they are writing to friends, working on papers for other courses, or just trolling their favorite sites while they listen.” True enough – but the fact that a student’s eyeballs were glued to a page has never been a guarantee that she was paying attention.
As far back as 13th-century Russia, the Dutch paleographer Erik Kwakkel finds a seven-year-old schoolboy decorating the margins of his birchbark class notes with a caricature. Just over half a millennium later, as cheap woodpulp paper replaced scarce rag-based predecessors, a new form of procrastination was born: the spitball. The laptop’s real victim may not be the ability to pay attention so much as the skill of crafting an aerodynamic airplane from lined paper. When we think about the death of print, we’re likelier to picture a rapt novel-reader than a ruled-notebook doodler. Pundits who compare the way we do use digital media with the way we wish we used printed books are often contrasting ideal apples with real oranges.
Yet it’s true that around books, we expect more of ourselves. Imagine some study comparing the rate at which food gets chewed in a fast-food joint or in a fancy restaurant. The explanation wouldn’t lie in the physical difference between plastic and silver forks. Printed books put us on our best behaviour.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Books by Leah Price is published by Basic Books on September 12th