Bits on the Beach

07/17/2014 04:10 pm ET | Updated Sep 16, 2014
Simon Vogt via Getty Images

Beach reading. Or maybe at 30,000 feet, in the mountains, or the backyard. Summer marks a time to catch up on unread books piled by your bedside or to order a new slew to consume during that week or two when you're not punching the virtual time clock.

What to read is one decision. The second is how to read: print or eBook?

These days, buying books often means downloading bits. For a time, intrepid gurus were predicting eBooks would wholly eclipse print. (A few digital prophets still do.) But if you listen to those running the numbers in the publishing industry, you'll hear a more balanced account.

Recently I returned from the International Digital Publishing Forum meetings in New York, a conference piggybacking with the American Booksellers Association and Book Expo America. The IDPF meetings began with Daniel in the lion's den: Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, argued that with reading, form should follow function. Some kinds of writing are best consumed in print, while others can happily live in either medium. Applause was polite, but Carr's message was largely non grata in a gathering of digital zealots.

The next day, independent booksellers had their say. In recent years, neighborhood bookstores have weathered turbulent times, faced with stiff competition from online vendors. Independents have creatively fought back, with new shops opening and many stores thriving as gathering places for books, conversation, and all things cultural. Scores of readers continue to value the personal knowledge and recommendations offered by in-the-flesh bookstore personnel. While some stores facilitate ordering eBooks, the essential coin of the realm is print. Customers seem willing to pay a premium -- full cover price -- for the benefit of talking with savvy staff.

That said, we all love a bargain. In the book world, there's no better bargain than "free," which is the cost of a profusion of titles at Book Expo America, the yearly extravaganza where booksellers come to size up offerings they might want to stock, and publishers look to make bulk sales. To drive this matchmaking, hundreds of advance copies of new books set to be released in the next several months are given away. Like beachcombers gathering shells, BEA visitors cruise the aisles of displays, picking up freebies.

Most -- though hardly all -- of these works are fiction: romance, mystery, history-driven tales. The stuff of beach reading, transatlantic reading, or mountain-cabin reading. Which brings us back to form and function.

I've just completed an analysis of reading in print versus onscreen, including surveying readers in the United States, Germany, and Japan. Hours of my day as a professor and writer are spent reading onscreen. But when I know I'll want to reflect on what I have read, to read it again, and to have it stare back at me when I'm working in my study, I read in print. The overwhelming majority of the people I surveyed do as well. They are troubled that digital reading invites multitasking and loss of concentration. Most also say they remember more when reading in print.

What about reading for pleasure -- whether fiction or biography, history or politics? Here's a rule of thumb I've constructed, based on my research. If you want to retain what you've read, read it again, or share your own copy with a friend, go with print. If it's one-off reading, digital is a fine choice. Your suitcase will be lighter, and you can snag new selections when sitting in your beach cottage or in airports with no bookstores. For most of us, though, chances are that next summer, we won't remember the details from digital books -- or even whether we already polished off that John Grisham, James Patterson, or Donna Leon title. (To be fair, the same is true of a lot of one-off reading we consume in print.)

At Book Expo America, among the advance copies I picked up were Radford Morrow's The Forgers and Nicholas Carr's The Glass Cage. On the train ride home, I devoured The Forgers, an intriguing tale about shady dealings and murder in the rare book world. My copy was print, but an eBook would have done equally well. I enjoyed the story, but won't reread it and have already forgotten the names of some main characters.

For Carr's The Glass Cage -- an analysis of the past and maybe ominous future of automation -- I'm glad I have hardcopy. While the work reads with the style of a novel, it's a serious account, one accompanied by ample endnotes and driven by arguments I want to chew on. When I've finished reading, I'll place the copy on a "don't forget about me" shelf where I'll visually keep stumbling upon it. If my version were digital, it would be -- like most of my digital photos - out of sight, out of mind.

Enjoy your summer reading. And let your medium match the message.


Naomi S. Baron is professor of linguistics at American University in Washington, DC and author of Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World, due out this winter from Oxford University Press.