Why I Love Physical Books
Scientific Facts and Personal Musings in Favor of the Printed Word
Few technological advances have had the same impact on humanity as the written word. The shift from an oral to a literary culture changed the course of our civilization forever.
Just as the words themselves, the medium on which they appear has a tremendous impact on how we perceive and process them, and no other medium has been as enduring and successful as the book.
In this article I want to first take a look at the history of books, then briefly talk about my own love of books, and finally give you some solid reasons based on neuroscience why you should love them too.
The first standardized writing medium were the clay tables of the Sumerians, whose scribes used pieces of reed to imprint them with cuneiform, one the first scripts known to mankind.
Around 2500 BC the Egyptians came up with the first improvement to this technology: Papyrus. In contrast to the bulky clay tables, this provided them with a medium that was flexible, portable, and easy to store.
Next came a kind of “Clay Table 2.0”: Wax tablets. While not as portable as papyrus, they were the first medium that allowed for easy erasing and editing. For the first time writing became fairly cheap and reversible, completely changing the process of ideation.
Finally a breakthrough discovery in China around 100 AD lead to a prototype of one of the most ubiquitous materials we know today: paper. This new material could be made much more thin and flexible than papyrus, and was also more suitable for mass production. As a result, it was quickly adopted throughout China.
Despite its success in the East, it took almost 1000 years for the technology to reach Europe through the Muslim world, and only became widespread in the 15th century.
During much of the intermediate time, while writing was becoming more and more common, the transition away from an oral culture was still only in its infancy. Most text was still scriptio continua, free of spaces or punctuation, simply transcribed as it would be heard. As a result, as unimaginable as this may sound today, silent reading was practically impossible and an almost entirely foreign concept.
The meaning of language, and thus human thought, was still firmly rooted in spoken sounds, not written characters.
Only after the idea of separating written text into individual words took hold, starting from around the 8th century and being irreversibly concluded by the time paper arrived in Europe, did silent reading become a common practice.
Shortly thereafter came Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 1455. By dramatically reducing the cost of distributing the written word, it could spread to the masses.
The shift to a literary culture was finally complete. The literary mind became the public mind.
And with it came a shift in the way humanity processed information.
Books, and the new skill of silent reading, quickly lead to an increased capability of deep thought, long and complex arguments, and silent contemplation.
Books fundamentally changed the course of human history. And as a medium, they were here to stay.
Despite an onslaught of new technology, books have proofed extremely resilient.
While many other technologies were soon made obsolete and replaced by more recent advances, the book has survived as a medium almost unchanged for centuries, despite abundant competition.
The printed word has many compelling advantages over reading on a screen. It is easy on the eyes, easy to browse, and comes with a certain durability that the relatively impermanent and easily edited digital text does not have.
It also comes with a certain pleasure of owning and buying books.
For me this might be something I have inherited from my mum, who is also an avid reader. As long as I can remember, books were everywhere around me growing up. A large portion of the living room walls was hidden behind bookshelves, containing hundreds of books. My own room started to take on a similar look as soon as I could enjoy books myself.
And even to this day, the omnipresence of books is probably one of the first things people notice when they visit my place for the first time (and to be honest, I also secretly judge people by the books I find in their homes).
I love buying and surrounding myself with books. This goes so far that I can’t even read borrowed books. Or if I do, I’ll buy it afterwards anyway, just so I can add it to my collection.
Certain books receive special spaces, standing face out on the shelf, lying on a coffee table, or being otherwise easily visible so I’m constantly reminded of their message or the meaning they have to me.
Others I pull out on a regular basis to revisit their ideas, or just to enjoy them once again.
Yet others are travel companions or used as preparation for special events. I have an old copy of Seneca’s “Letters From A Stoic” which I used to read at random when traveling to compete in ultra-marathons. It’s pretty battered and warped since it was often just thrown in my bag and soaked up some rain and sweat, but I wouldn’t want to exchange it for a new copy. It carries a personal history.
This is very similar to what I described in a previous story about the stains and scribbles in my notebooks. They serve as a means of time travel. A means of reliving past situations and emotions. A means of instantly traveling back to distant places.
Traditional books have started to face some competition from e-books, which are steadily gaining in popularity.
I can understand their appeal. Especially the fact that it is now easy to essentially carry an entire library in your backpack, weighing only a few hundred grams.
They also add the option to include hypertext, turning books into a dynamic and interactive experience. But I have previously written about reasons why this is more problematic than helpful, and can often lead to getting lost in the rabbit holes of Wikipedia and Google.
Total immersion is compromised.
“Already the silences, threats of concentration and memorization, the luxuries of time on which ‘high reading’ depended are largely disposed.” — George Steiner
A book is just a book, and that’s what makes it so wonderful. It doesn’t come with multiple layers of alternative functions that are vying for our attention.
E-books and other electronic text are also much easier to edit, which makes them less permanent, and arguably can lead to writers paying less attention. Books on the other hand are a finished product, with indelible words written for posterity, not just to appeal to the fleeting trends of the current month.
Several times in the past have books been proclaimed dead, for example with the advent of newspapers and phonographs, yet they have survived all of their competitors. I strongly believe that the e-book is no different. It adds another complementary way to enjoy books, but it won’t replace them. The same goes for audiobooks. All great technologies in their own right, but not a substitute, rather a supplement.
While reading a book, we actively engage our brains language, memory, and visual regions.
The same is true while reading hypertext, but in that case we also fire up our brain’s problem solving and decision making regions. While this is for example good news for keeping our mind healthy in old age, having all these regions active at the same time makes sustained concentration difficult.
Decisions have to be made constantly. Every time we encounter a link our brain subconsciously has to pause for a moment and decide whether to click it or not. This leads to a large build-up of attention residue.
Deep reading of books on the other hand disengages the senses and decision making process and allows for deep thinking instead. It promotes a calm mind, not a buzzing mind.
When it comes to learning and understanding, more neural activity is not always better.
Everything we are consciously aware of at any given moment is stored in our working memory (WM). It can both read from as well as write to our long term memory (LTM).
However, the transition from WM to LTM is one of the major bottlenecks of our mind. The WM can only hold around three to five unique “elements” of information at one time, and those elements disappear quickly.
Reading a book allows our brains to gradually transfer ideas from WM to LTM. Reading on the web or another highly linked or interactive medium on the other hand leads to a constant overflow of the working memory before the transfer can occur.
If the cognitive load exceeds our capacity to process, we can’t transfer information to our LTM and make connections to previously learned ideas. As Nicholas Carr put it, “we become mindless consumers of data”.
It has also been shown that eye movement is drastically different on the web compared to books.
On the web, our eyes tend to scan the text in an “F” shape: We skim the first few lines, but also quickly have our focus jump down the page.
While the average person’s reading time has actually been steadily increasing, the time spent on in-depth and concentrated reading is decreasing on average.
One potential upside: We are getting more skilled at rapid-fire decision making. While this is certainly a desirable skill for people such as C-Suite executives, the things we give up for it are probably not worth the bargain for most of us.
“Does optimizing for multi-tasking result in better functioning — that is creativity, inventiveness, productiveness? The answer is, in more cases than not, no. The more you multi-task, the less deliberate you become” — Jordan Grafman
Following this trend, we are becoming more and more likely to rely on conventional wisdom and old solutions rather than coming up with our own unique ideas.
The net and hyperlinked text effectively increase speed of thought at the cost of depth and inventiveness.
“To be everywhere is to be nowhere.” — Seneca
Reading and writing weren’t always seen as the epitome of intellectual pursuit. In Plato’s “Phaedrus” the character Thamus laments that “it will implant forgetfulness in [the] souls: they will cease to exercise memory; a recipe not for memory, but for reminder.”
Socrates was similarly worried that the transition from oral to literary culture would diminish memory capability. But as Umberto Eco puts it, books “challenge and improve memory; they do not narcotize it.”
While it is true that most of us have almost entirely lost the ability to memorize and recite long songs and poems, as was common amongst our distant ancestors, what we have gained in exchange more than makes up for it.
The famous scholar Erasmus of Rotterdam was also a great lover of books, and proclaimed that he did not enjoy memorization for its own sake, but as a first step towards synthesis. And this is what books really allow us to do: Offload just enough cognitive weight to allow for synthesis of new thoughts, without completely compromising memorization and transfer of read ideas to the long term memory.
“When I have a little money, I buy books; and if I have any left, I buy food and clothes.” — Erasmus of Rotterdam
I actually still remember how in high school, and even later at university, I used to be proud and brag about my bad memory and that it’s a waste to know anything that can be looked up. Now, still thinking that my memory is actually below average, I’m more worried that if I don’t know a variety of things I can’t use them as a starting point to synthesize my own ideas. It’s also impossible to make connections between ideas if you don’t have at least some stored knowledge of them.
And again, books facilitate exactly this kind of thinking. The net on the other hand is often seen or treated as a replacement for memory, not an aid to it.
It is a common misconception that offloading memory to external devices leaves us more mental space for important thoughts.
Outsourcing our memory to computers ignores the fact that human memory is something inherently organic and keeps being processed long after it has been initially stored.
The transition from working memory to long term memory is long and complex. First a memory only exists in the sensory cortex responsible for it, e.g. visual or auditory for sights or sounds respectively. It is currently believed that theses short term memories are encoded via patterns of neural activity and a following release of neurotransmitters.
Short term memories are purely biochemical. As a result, this process is very fast to engage, but also very transient since neurotransmitter balance is mostly restored within a few seconds.
Before the memory can disappear, it has to partially migrate to the hippocampus, which is ideal for this task since it can adapt very fast. After a little while the memory is entirely erased from the sensory cortices and exists solely in the hippocampus.
Finally over a long time span, up to years, the memory migrates from the hippocampus to the cortex, being converted into a true long term memory. These long term memories are not just biochemical, but anatomical, encoded in the structural makeup of our brains.
During this long process our hippocampus is constantly active in preserving and reshaping memories, and connecting them with new memories we make.
But the hippocampus is very busy most of the time, having many other functions as well, such as allowing us to navigate our environment. Only during sleep is it relieved from most other duties and can focus fully on memory consolidation. This is one of the key reasons why sleep is so important for memory and learning.
Again books come to the rescue. Reading on screens before going to bed has a detrimental effect to our sleep quality, both due to the blue light exposure as well as the stimulating distractions they often present us with.
Reading a book on the other hand, especially a good novel, allows us to switch off our problem-solving mind and prepare for a good night of restful sleep.
So do your brain a favor. As great as Medium is, at least occasionally choose to read printed instead of digital text to give your brain more distraction free time to transfer information from working memory to the hippocampus. Then get some good sleep so your hippocampus gets time to process and assimilate all that new information.
And besides all the scientific reasons, I hope that also just discover the joy of surrounding yourself with great books!