The Importance of the Printed Word: A Cautionary Tale

“Print or e-book?” the instructor asked the class.

The question looks like something you’d see on an e-Harmony quiz. Sunset or sunrise? Boxers or briefs? Once, I made the mistake of answering. I had barely uttered the word “e-book” before another writer unleashed a sweeping condemnation of my choice, including the lack of gorgeous binding, the arresting feel of paper against fingertip and the non-transferrable-to-children nature of those beastly contraptions.

Bartlet wrongness



My book buying habits are driven by the following factors:

  •      I live in a very small space.
  •      When I want something, I want it now! — Veruca Salt-style.
  •      No one wants to move all of your books after you die. Trust me.

Hence, I primarily read e-books. I only buy print books if they truly move me or if the author is a friend. And I only keep books that I’ve underlined with abandon. If those print books turn out to be meh, I place them in the Little Free Library down the street. My relationship with print books stops there. Or, it did.

My Way is to Find the Highway

Last year around this time, I decided to take a walk in the woods. I’d been at Sewanee Writers’ Conference for about five days longer than my social capabilities could abide and set off for a nearby lookout point for some solitude and reflection*. After I took in the landscape and secured a selfie, I turned to my right and saw a sign for a walking trail. I checked my watch, by which I mean my iPhone, and headed deeper into the woods by following a clearly marked trail. What could go wrong?

Oh, dear reader, let me count the ways:

  1. I was wearing my super cute, multi-tongued and multi-colored Converse sneakers, which are great for flair but truly stupid for trails.
  2. I have this unnatural belief that I can walk anywhere in one hour. This comes from living in a small city like Boston, where you can walk to pretty much any destination within the city in one hour or less. So when I go to say, New York City, or the woods near The University of the South, I take this belief with me, foolishly.
  3. I had about 30% battery left in my iPhone.
  4. I had one-to-two bars of cell service depending on whether or not the trail dipped or rose.

The deeper I walked into the woods, the more I calculated things like hunting season start dates and how easily I could become game for some demented hunter like in the movie I wasn’t supposed to watch when I was a kid but had watched anyway from the dark hallway. I remembered that my girlfriend bought me a survival guide e-book** and pulled out my iPhone (see #3 above). The e-book had not been read in a while, so the iPhone app graciously archived it for me, and downloading was not an option (see #4 above). I checked my Google map (again, see #4). From what I could tell from the pixelated map, I would be fine as long as I followed the trail.

A chorus of creatures – crickets, frogs, owls, winged-things with terrible names – created a horror movie soundtrack as I crept along the trail and tried not to trip over tree roots (see #1 above). With every dissonant sound, I jerked my head to see what followed me but resumed after stopping and not hearing it again. The first time I heard a branch break, I convinced myself that it was simply a squirrel or a deer. The second time I heard a snap, I stopped to listen. The woods stared back, silent, still. The only sound came from my breathing too fast. The walk and heat had left my mouth dry and in want of water. My nose itched. I lifted a hand to scratch and thought I saw the outline of someone standing in the woods.***

I launched into a full run down the trail and scrambled up an embankment toward the highway when I heard a car pass by. Once I hit the highway, I checked the map. It was a short walk back to campus, where I met up with my friend for dinner. She only had to wait an extra ten minutes for me to extract the twigs from my hair and change out of my sweaty clothes and dirty sneakers.


The Importance of Pluralism

For me, a word is a word is a word. What matters is how the words sing when strung together, the way they hold someone in suspense and the care with which an author treats the audience – even if they choose to consume those words with zeros and ones.

As much as I love my e-books and the convenience they provide, I fall on the side of people who believe that print will never die and that there will always be enthusiasts out there preserving the good old days of ink. And as much as I roll my eyes at those enthusiasts when they get on a roll, I believe they are on to something. There is comfort to be found in a copy of your favorite book. I imagine that if stuck on a desert island, they would choose to take their favorite novel.

Personally, I would take a print copy of Hawke’s Special Forces Survival Handbook.

* Why am I here? Why did they choose me? There must have been a mistake. A clerical error. Or maybe they needed a novelist because there were too many short story writers and they wanted to be fair and the pickins were slim and so here I am and I’m totally freaking out and WTF am I doing here I think I might pass out. Do I have enough battery to look up my symptoms on WebMD?

** In the event that you are lost in the woods and darkness has begun to fall, you should first seek shelter (off the ground, if at all possible) and water. Next, make a fire. Then, you may freak the fuck out.

***While the incident recounted here is true, I lifted this particular paragraph from my novel in progress for embellishment and as proof that your dead darlings can find life in other forms. That reminds me: You should also have a Zombie Survival Guide on hand. Just in case.


  1. Emily Ross

    ha. Thanks for the cautionary tale! I’m an e-book enthusiast too. For one thing I can now read long books without worrying they are too heavy to carry on the T and without having to physically see how much more I have left to read. But yeah, there are still times when print is better.

  2. Rob Wilstein

    Very funny, Kelly. Love it. I read both forms quite a bit.
    Print book pros for me:
    1. The feel and smell, all that good stuff.
    2. Reading on the beach. (I don’t care if the book gets wet)
    3. I like collecting them. (It’ll be my son’s problem what to do with them.)
    E-book pros:
    1. Instant gratification (They’re piling up on my IPad)
    2. Reading at night in bed. (No lights, no sound, appreciative wife.)
    3. Instant dictionary reference for those big words I don’t know.

  3. Thanks, friends. You’re so right about the T, Emily. And, Rob, I love your pros list for print. Agree with all! I like the idea of both even if I am an e-book enthusiast!

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