Every so often, you come across an article where the headline and a quick skim makes you think it’s going to say one thing, but reading in depth reveals it actually says something else. That’s the case for this piece by Robert Fulford in the National Post.

With a headline like, “Can ebooks compare to the tactile pleasure of a book and the cozy, welcoming space of a library?” you would expect it to be another “smell of books” piece—after all, the truism is that when the headline asks a question, the correct answer is usually “no.” Especially given that Fulford describes himself as an octogenarian.

But in fact, it turns out that this headline was ironic. Fulford discusses reader responses to his previous week’s column, on whether books would “survive the digital age.” Fulford’s conclusion in that column is a little hard to draw out, given that he spent so much of it talking about the book’s earlier history, but seemed to be that yes, they would, and in this follow-up he makes that position clearer.

Many of his readers seem to fall into the camp espoused by Fulford’s provocative headline. Case in point: one of his correspondents actually used the phrase “young people today” in a non-ironic manner. After quoting that person’s perspective, Fulford gives the appropriate response: “Were things so much better before? Was the cultural air more salubrious in 1950, or 1980? Only a selective memory will lead you to think it was.”

What of the smell of books, and their “tactile pleasure”? Fulford quotes another correspondent thus, and again has the right answer: “Agreed. But such books are still available, and for sale. And there’s nothing to keep digital books from improving.”

Libraries, hymnals vs. projection screens, even bookmarks all get their reader paeans. But in the end, Fulford quotes an e-book-positive reader:

Another reader argues in favour of e-books and against the belief that young people read more books in the good old days. He says he’s only sorry that he can’t find all of his books in e-book format. He loves being able to carry many books around in a wallet-sized tablet. As for the reading of university students, he doubts whether they were much different from those of 2016. In university he liked novels. “And if my fellow students didn’t read novels unless they had to, I would not have been surprised.” So when people announce that things are going downhill, “I know that it isn’t true.”

Sounds about right. In my own youth, as I remember it, only a small minority of my friends and acquaintances ever mentioned reading a book. How much they missed!

I think this is an interesting and valuable pair of columns. A lot of people fall into the trap of assuming the literary and cultural tastes of “young people today” have declined compared to their own, just because tastes have changed so much. I come in for just that sort of thing myself whenever I realize the music I grew up with has now been consigned to “classic rock” stations. When I grew up, “classic rock” was the stuff my parents listened to in the fifties and sixties! It somehow never occurred to me that would change as time went on…

It’s funny to look at the comments below the article, too, as so many of them are knee-jerk “Give me a real book every time!!” reactions. Yet, there are also those who agree with Fulford that the content of the book is the important thing. There’s one reader who lived in Egypt for seven years and bought a Kindle because she couldn’t find print versions of books she wanted to read. And another reader who grew up with books but switched to the Kindle writes:

Reading is about the words in the book and the story they tell. The tactile part is just something that you, at some point, associated with the act of reading. Young people now don’t have to necessarily associate that tactile feeling with reading.

The more I think about it, the more I think that my “classic rock” reaction might have something to do with the “modern” take on e-books. I still catch myself thinking that eighties music isn’t “classic rock”! It’s just…rock. What’s this new-fangled crap on the radio?

And then I run across these people grumbling that printed books are just books, and what’s this new-fangled “e-“ stuff, and I recognize the generational shift again. Only, as Fulford demonstrates (and as our publisher David Rothman does, too!), at least some members of earlier generations still have it right.


  1. Ever start a new book and discover, early in, that it’s awful BUT it’s the only book you have at the moment so you continue with it? Ever have to lug around a huge hardback because the paperback isn’t out yet? Ever have to fumble with a paperback to read the first words on the right-hand page because of the binding? Ever feel hesitant about reading some trashy guilty-pleasure book in public? Ever find yourself wanting to read in the dark?

    The concept of a “tactile” benefit from a printed book quickly loses its appeal.

    All of this, of course, doesn’t even consider aging eyes that require a larger font. Nor does it consider new authors — some very good — who might not be able to find a publisher. Agatha Christie got rejected for 5 years before her first book was published. JK Rowling got 12 rejections and her Robert Galbraith pen-name got several more. Louis L’Amour got 200 rejections at first and the list goes on and on. Thanks to KDP, getting published electronically is no longer an issue.

    E-books simply make more sense and you have to wonder how much of this love for print is ginned up by the Big 5 who are desperately attempting to hold on in the face of the inevitable; rather like buggy whip manufacturers in the early 1900’s. There are (probably) *still* some buggy whip manufacturers who exist today just as there will be book publishers in the future but they are/will be pretty damned insignificant to the real world.

    • My favorite rejection story, btw, is the one about Jerzy Kosinski who resubmitted a best-selling book of his under a pen-name to 14 publishers. All rejected it, including Random House which had published the book in the first place. All did so based upon its judged merit, not because it was already a published work.

  2. Ownership is perhaps a stronger feeling than any smell or tactile feeling. A print book offers a powerful feeling of ownership. You can do what you want with it, including loan it to a friend. Digital books with DRM don’t offer that assurance. Ownership is lost in a sea of maybes. The technology isn’t settled. The legalities aren’t settled. It’s a mess.

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