Just a few years ago, if you asked an editor at a large publishing house about the prospects of the print industry, his face would have fallen. People weren’t reading as much, it seemed, social media were sucking up all the leisure minutes, and bookstores were closing. (Borders failed in 2011—a terrible blow.)
E-books seemed to be the only bright spot, the one possible pathway to survival. I had lunch with former President Jimmy Carter around that time, and when he walked up to the table, he held up his Kindle and proclaimed, “Mark—this is going to save reading in America!” He proceeded to tell me that he had hiked in the Georgia woods the preceding week, paused on a hilltop, and downloaded Anna Karenina. No bookstore or library needed, just the handy device. The days of books were numbered.
That's all changed. Wall Street Journal reported last week from the annual Frankfurt book fair, a large international gathering of publishers and booksellers, print revenue is up! From 2013 to 2016, print revenue climbed 5 percent, while e-book sales dropped 17 percent in 2016 alone. As the story put it, “Book publishers are giving an advance review of the industry’s future, and it looks a lot like the past.”
Brian Murray, head of HarperCollins, believes a “screen fatigue” has set in. There are other indications, too. Some recent research points to evidence that children prefer print books to e-readers, a finding that doesn’t surprise anyone who has pulled out Goodnight Moon while his three-year-old curled up beside him. When linguist Naomi Baron asked college students which format helped them concentrate and study the most, 92 percent chose the hard copy, not the screen. And this story in Fast Company cites more research showing that “absorbing information from analog mediums now appears to be better for memory retention.” The same material read in a book tends to stay with you longer than when read in digital formats.
It was thought that the resistance to screens and preference for books was just a generational matter. People liked books because they grew up with them. They didn’t read on screens so much, merely due to old habits, or nostalgia, or plain curmudgeonliness. Once the millennials head into middle age, they’ll take with them the screen-reading dispositions they acquired in childhood.
This is why the studies of children and students are especially illuminating. They suggest that old-fashioned enjoyment of real objects, actual books, not virtual books, may not be a historical trend running out, or a social construct lingering past its due date. Something about screen reading may be less natural, congenial, or in some fashion “human,” than book reading.
Mark Bauerlein is senior editor of First Things.
Photo by Justin Brendel.