While you’re holding a book,
the book is holding you
The image looks like a million other family travel photos: two adults and a 10-year-old at a historic destination — in this case England’s Greenwich Observatory, the place where you could say time starts. But on close examination, the picture has a fourth element: a just-published Harry Potter novel, as big as the 10-year-old is small. Holding his place, the kid’s finger has disappeared into the book, and from the expression on his face, so has he.
We may have been in Greenwich, but my son was at Hogwarts.
A long time before, when I was about his size, I had torn through Treasure Island, dealing with words I didn’t recognize by either skipping over them or trying to sound them out, producing outlandish internal pronunciations that fortunately nobody ever heard. A bit later, I flung myself at James Michener’s Potter-weight Hawaii, with passages I still remember more sharply than things I read last week.
But in the years since Greenwich Mean Time became the standard measure of the moment, technology has surged past the binding together of printed pages. Information now moves with the form and speed of electronic impulses. Yet books persist, much like that kid refusing to be budged from the world his imagination has conjured. “Every time there is a new innovation, they predict the death of the book,” Michael Herrmann, the owner of Gibson’s Bookstore in Concord, New Hampshire, said recently. “But the book is a perfect technology. Like the shark, it hasn’t changed and continues to thrive.”
The newest challenges to the printed book range from 500 channels of television and the boundless resources of the internet to the small plastic devices, the weight and thickness of a slice of pizza, that can display multiple volumes. The threats at one time appeared lethal: In the first decade of this century, the number of U.S. bookstores, both chain and independent, dropped sharply. All over America, bookstores were closing down, their spaces turning into nail salons and hot yoga studios.
But over the past decade, the number of independent bookstores across the country has rebounded — shooting up from 1,651 to 2,524, with sales rising steadily. This resurgence is not about “information,” or what the tech folks call “content.” It’s about actual books, ink on paper, that not only send words out but pull people in. Bookstores are drawing people back to the comfort of print.
In 2012, best-selling author Ann Patchett wrote in the Atlantic: “You may have heard the news that the independent bookstore is dead, that books are dead, that maybe even reading is dead — to which I say: Pull up a chair, friend. I have a story to tell.” Her story is that when the last independent new-book store in her hometown of Nashville, Tennessee, closed, Patchett — explaining that she didn’t want to live in a town without a bookstore — joined with a couple of friends to open her own. With the help of some of her writer friends doing readings, Parnassus Books has been a dramatic success. “People still want books,” she declared. “I’ve got the numbers to prove it.”
In the summer of 2019, Patchett got still more proof of that: Amazon announced that it would open up its own bookstore across the street from Parnassus.
In Portland, Oregon, a place named Powell’s City of Books covers an entire city block and rises three stories; it is not so much a bookstore as a neighborhood. People go to Powell’s for diversion as much as for commerce, stopping in when they have a spare hour downtown or showing it off to out-of-town visitors. Powell’s is a social location, a place of first dates that never have to worry about running out of words.
The lure is not only being surrounded by books, but also being insulated by them. People have a persistent interest in reading books, but they also like to talk about books, and to people who spend a lot of time around books. As Eric Ackland, proprietor of the new and booming Amazing Books and Records in Pittsburgh, told the New York Times last summer, “A bookstore clerk or owner is inevitably something of a therapist.”
Like many people, I often go to Powell’s for no particular reason, only to leave laden with purchases that an hour earlier I didn’t know I needed. That kind of thing happens in bookshops; it’s less frequent (for me, at any rate) in hardware stores.
People have a persistent interest in reading books, but they also like to talk about books.
With a physical book, you can easily leaf back a few chapters to remind yourself who a character is, and didn’t she move to Chicago in Chapter 6? You can peek at the last page to make sure things end happily. You can write nasty comments in the margin, although libraries — and, to some degree, authors — really wish you wouldn’t. Those things can be done on an iPad, but somehow the experience is not the same. “People spend so much time in front of a screen, they want to do something else,” suggests Oren Teicher, recently retired CEO of the American Booksellers Association. “There is a very strong case to be made that reading a physical book is a fundamentally different experience from reading on a screen.”
In 2019, the Hechinger Institute reported that, according to an analysis of 29 studies, students retained more from print than from screens, although the exact reason wasn’t clear. Distraction? Eye movement? Deep brain function? My theory is based on the power of physical connection: While you’re holding a book, the book is also holding you. It’s the same reason that a kiss is better than a romantic movie. (Admittedly, I read about the survey on a screen.)
You can’t exactly say books are beating back technology; people still stare obsessively at their cellphones as well as their 55-inch television screens. But books are holding their own, in bookstores as well as on nightstands. Those may in fact be the strongest redoubts of books, piled there to accompany people into sleep and to be ready when sleepers awake in the darkness from unnerving dreams.
Books are a comfort at such times, but as a perfect (and portable) technology, they also can accompany you into other unsettling circumstances. I once brought a book to a biopsy, focusing on each line as small bits of me were being harvested. The doctor, somewhat taken aback, remarked that it must be quite a book. Actually, it was, but just by being a book, it was providing something I could never get from a podcast. Words on a page, carefully arranged to reach out to you, can distract you more thoroughly than voices in your head. You can listen to a podcast while driving, but it’s a bad idea to try to read a book.
An estimated 5 million Americans meet regularly in book groups, as opposed to gathering for appliance critiques or in vodka tasting clubs, because talking about books is a way to talk about your life, in a sense that talking about Instagram simply isn’t. Books have the power to bring people together.
Recently, dropping off a rental car at the Los Angeles airport, I got into a conversation with the 20-something rental agent about a scratch on the rear bumper — and I want to make this clear, I hit nothing; the scratch must have been there before. It seemed to me that the agent was leaning in a little close to me and my carry-on bag. Not seeking conflict, but feeling that the situation required some assertiveness, I asked her if there was a problem.
“Oh,” she said. “I just wanted to see what you were reading.”
• David Sarasohn wrote about the enduring effects of a single act of kindness in our November issue. He lives in Portland, Oregon.
• This story originally appeared in the March 2020 issue of The Rotarian magazine.