The joy of reading physical books

Malay Mail
Malay Mail

APRIL 15 — Recently, with all the hype about The Three-Body Problem on Netflix , I decided to buy Cixin Liu’s first book in the trilogy.

When I shared a photo of the book on WhatsApp, I was duly reminded of how rare a species I seem to be.

At least two of my friends said they quit buying physical books; nowadays they only read books on Kindle or download PDFs and just read on their devices.

The situation is even more pronounced when it comes to non-fiction.

At my university where I’ve been working almost three years, I swear I have not seen a single physical textbook being held by any student.

This is nothing short of amazing considering how, decades ago, folks like me used to queue up at the college library to reserve books on the Required Reading list.

Ergo, textbooks in the past were as critically important as water. Today they’re as non-essential as phone booths.

Anyway, what follows is my ode to those of us who still enjoy carrying, touching and flipping through paperbacks and hardbacks (you know who you are).

Yes yes yes, no doubt 100 per cent e-books are more convenient to “transport” and you can store a million titles in just one device, and you can perform those magical word searches and, of course, many of these can be obtained free (but don’t ask me how).

The writer says physical books take up space in your life and schedule in a way that a PDF cannot. — ETX Studio pic
The writer says physical books take up space in your life and schedule in a way that a PDF cannot. — ETX Studio pic

The writer says physical books take up space in your life and schedule in a way that a PDF cannot. — ETX Studio pic

But physical books still have a wonder about them.

There is something inexplicably delightful about holding Colleen Hoover’s It Starts With Us in your hands, no matter how cheesy its cover art.

A physical book takes up space (in a good way!) in your life and schedule in a way that a PDF cannot; every bookworm reading this knows that feeling of proudly taking a photo of your paperback next to your latte in Starbucks.

I mean, hey, if you’re gonna show off what you’re reading there is nothing — absolutely nothing — compared to sharing a photo of a page from Neil Gaiman’s Twice Cursed with your friends, is there?

And no word search can beat the joy of flipping back and forth through, say, Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow trying to find that reference on anchoring bias or loss aversion.

Or peeling away the price tag and cleaning the sticky area so the entire back cover looks nice. Or nonchalantly glancing at the inside flaps right after finishing Chapter 3.

Or removing the dust jacket of a hardcover book so it doesn’t get soiled or damaged from the frequent flipping; and enjoying the touch (and smell!) of the now “naked” book.

Or inserting a pretty book-mark, before later removing it and repurposing it as a marker because otherwise it’s so damn hard to focus on Paul Lynch’s Prophet Song.

Those tactile sensations are, to many people, not a trivial thing.

It can be the difference between scrolling through your phone and, uh, staring at your phone while your friend scrolls through it for you. Nobody would be caught dead wanting the latter experience even though you’re “seeing the same thing”.

A physical book thus playfully reminds us that a work of writing extends beyond the sum of its words i.e. the “packaging” or “container” of said words can matter.

One problem with reading PDFs is that such books, existing ethereally as they do in one’s laptop or iPad, sometimes give the impression you haven’t fully read the book(?). That’s why some friends I know end up buying the physical book if they enjoyed the Kindle version; just to actually own the product.

In a world already dominated by screens, it’s worth bearing in mind that realia still has its unique privileges. The written word, printed in real ink and bound with real glue and between real covers (!), remains a source of much enjoyment.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.