Bookish Intuitions

From The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age by Sven Birkets:

A change is upon us—nothing could be clearer. The printed word is part of a vestigial order that we are moving away from—by choice and by societal compulsion. I’m not just talking about disaffected academics, either. This shift is happening throughout our culture, away from the patterns and habits of the printed page and toward a new world distinguished by its reliance on electronic communication.

This passage prompted me to think about my own relation to digital text, printed words, and the act of reading itself, so here are a few thoughts:

I’ve always been a Reader with a capital R. I grew up with a lot of books in the house, and from a young age, my parents made sure I understood the importance of reading widely and with intent. But what does it mean to read? How do you go about it? Of course, reading means different things to different people. Maybe you read novels, comics, academic journals, or periodicals and the like. No matter the form, expectations of how you read are different from medium to medium.

My guess is that you don’t read text messages in the same way that you read The Atlantic, and you don’t read The Atlantic in the same way you read a hardcover copy of War and Peace, and you probably don’t read War and Peace in the same way that you read Harry Potter on an e-reader. I won’t go full McLuhan, but the medium is the message and the medium shapes the mind.

I’ve come to terms with the idea that I don’t read on screens. At least not the kind of careful and thorough reading that I enjoy. I’ve always viewed text on screen as superficial. In most cases, digital text delivers itself to us in short-form streams: we skim, scan, and skip through the text from one ephemeral sentence to another. Reading on screens is in direct opposition of memory-making, of meaning-making, of understanding. Hell, I don’t remember most of what read online. A lot of digital content is throwaway—it isn’t meant for longterm memory. So for better or worse, I approach digital text as a uninterested user, not as an attentive reader. I ingest words on screens only so that I can accomplish tasks—"reading" online is a means to an end.

Also worth noting: One of the most disappointing aspects of text on screens is that it almost always looks bad. Typography on the web has come a long way, but it is not a practice that people take time to get right. I think this is another reason why I turn away from reading long-form articles online, even when the writing is good.

On the other hand, my relation to printed words is very different. I pay the same kind of close attention to my reading habits as I do my nutrition habits—both seem like meaningful areas of one’s life to scrutinize and explore. Physical books are great source of pleasure for me. Language, dialog, form, typography all come together on the page. If I am to truly grasp what I'm reading, I’ve got to bring my whole self to the book.

Put another way, I treat book reading as an event. It’s an activity I have to intellectually, physically, and emotionally prepare for. I read cover to cover with sustained concentration. It is slow going, immersive, and so satisfying. I cannot achieve a similar reading experience online. But maybe you can?

For me, here’s the key thing: Reading from the screen and reading from the printed page are not the same. I am not saying that one method of reading is better than the other—they each have their purpose. What I am saying is that to do the kind of reading I enjoy, the kind of reading that makes me happy, I need a physical book in hand. The way I see it, printed words hold a better quality of attention than words on screen.


  • Reading on screens is more about the extraction of information.
  • Reading printed works is more about inquiry and insights.
Bookish Intuitions
Justin S