Why are Physical Books Better?

Remembering what we’ve read is tough. It doesn’t help that in the age of the internet more and more of what we read is online. When we click off the piece or site that we are reading, what we’ve read generally goes in one ear and out the other. This makes it difficult to remember or revisit what we’ve read. It’s time for us to get a bookshelf filled with books.

Physical books have a quality about them that allows them to be forever present in our minds. They act as a near-constant reminder of the things we learned and the characters we met. It is like a photograph on the mantelpiece.

The reason we have the proverbial photograph is that we want to remember. Nothing can be more frustrating than when we cannot. This is because memory is what is fundamentally going to shape who we are and how we act. If we don’t have memories, then we don’t know who or what we are.

The advantage that physical books have over e-readers is that they allow for better deep reading. What is deep reading and why is it better? Deep reading is the active, thoughtful, and deliberate reading of a text. This as opposed to skimming or speed reading. The reader is actively trying to glean all they can from the text. To quote Brandon Keim writing for Wired on why this is useful,

Maybe it's time to start thinking of paper and screens another way: not an old technology and its inevitable replacement, but as different and complementary interfaces, each stimulating particular modes of thinking. Maybe paper is a technology uniquely suited for imbibing novels and essays and complex narratives, just as screens are for browsing and scanning.

Our memories are triggered by the quality of the thing we read. Or something of this nature. There is a big difference between the various types and styles of e-readers. To put it plainly smartphones and tablets (Apple is best. Fight me!) are terrible for deep reading, while Kindles are much better. Kindles do not have the same issues of having the reader stay awake because they do not use blue light and they attempt to stay as close to paper looking as they can. Kindles advertise themselves as being basically “digital ink.” This is them conceding the point to physical books by trying to make themselves as much like physical books as they can.

One study refers to reading physical books as being a “multi-sensory encounter” wherein the reader’s physical interaction with the book allows for better reading comprehension and memory. This “multi-sensory encounter” brings forth all of the reader’s senses (well, except taste… hopefully). You see the page, you feel the page and the book’s weight, you hear the paper as you flip through the pages, and you smell the book.

This encounter with your senses is why physical books are so appealing. The study makes particular mention of how the smell of the book can create a sense of nostalgia; the older the book the more pronounced the feeling. This is because our sense of smell is actually a better trigger for memory than even sight. This is because smell is directly connected to the part of the brain that regulates emotion and to the area that regulates memory. The activity of your senses working together helps you construct the memory of the book in question, which is the weakness of e-readers in the end. That you can only use one of your senses. It helps construct a roadmap and helps you remember what you have read.

Do you really know something if you do not remember it? For most things in life, the ability to do them requires the individual to know or to remember how to do them. To experience something, in this case, is the key. What we know is what we remember, and what we remember is what we experience.

This is essential to us for the fact that we only exist in the here and now. The past is memory and the future is speculation formed from the expectations we have gathered from our memory. We can often sense how a novel will end by how the plot has gone so far, which is not possible without us remembering. Everything, except for this instant, lives in our imagination, with the only thing keeping the past alive is in our memory of it.

An important thing to remember about memory is that it does not just appear, it actually must form. This is not a passive activity, so much as an active one. Every time we remember something/think of something it triggers one of our neurons in our brain. The more the specific neuron fires, the better we remember the thing. This has the effect of strengthening this pathway. However, if we stop using it or replace it with something else, what we have previously learned can be lost or overwritten. A good way of thinking about forgetting something is actually just the brain re-prioritizing what it focuses on.

The way the average person studies is that they will use some form of rote memorization to memorize facts and definitions that are likely to be on the test. Think using flashcards. Now, this is a very specific (and not that useful) form of memorization, but it is a useful way of thinking about how we form memory. It is not exactly correct to say memory is like a muscle, however, it does require a person to refresh the information over time

From these memories will also come emotion. This leads to another benefit of reading; that it helps you become more empathetic. Empathy is the ability of the person to be able to, roughly, feel what the other is feeling. If we are highly empathetic this will lead to you seeing the individual in pain, because this is when we most sharply feel it, and your brain will reconfigure itself in order to imitate said pain. This is obviously not exact, it would be awful every time someone broke a bone for those around them to feel as if they broke a bone, but the people around feel as if they “could'' break a bone. That they can relate to that feeling.

A study has found that reading fiction can, at least temporarily, solve the problem of other minds, which is to say, it can help develop an individual’s empathy. The study, which referred to the problem of other minds as the “Theory of Mind'' defined it as being “the human capacity to comprehend that other people hold beliefs and desires and that these may differ from one's own beliefs and desires.”

One way we know that reading can develop empathy is that we as readers can feel a parasocial attachment to the characters we read about. We can feel their pain. This is the same for all other emotions. Perhaps it is better to say that it is not merely the act of doing something that makes you remember, but the emotion and investment put into it.

Why do we remember these emotions? Well, the biological reason is that when our body is in a heightened state of emotion our bodies will release hormones that will “prime” the nerves that make up memory. You remember joyful moments or moments when you are angry. The more intense the emotion, the greater the chance it will be ingrained in the memory.

Humans developed the ability to feel emotions as a survival mechanism for a very hostile and dangerous world. Their utility is obvious. Fear for when we are to be wary of something. Disgust for something we should avoid being around or consuming. Emotions exist to moderate our behavior or how we should behave around something. These emotions form from external stimuli and the chemicals that are produced from such stimuli. Ex. You see a tiger, well then the brain will produce adrenaline in preparation for a fight and noradrenaline to heighten our alertness.

These emotions are also vital for pair bonding and general sociableness. This is evident by such chemicals as oxytocin, which is produced in social environments. This has to do with books in the way that we interact with them. That is to say that our reading can produce the stimuli necessary to have the brain produce the chemicals necessary for emotions. You cry when reading something sad because your brain has, roughly, reconfigured the pain on paper in your head.

While the study does not speak to e-reading versus physical books, it would not seem to be too much of a leap to suspect that the latter would lead to greater increases than the former based on all that we know now. In fact, this is one of the main reasons that historian Lynn Hunt links the growth of the idea of human rights in the 18th century to people reading epistolary novels. They developed the ability to empathize with people other than their own group.

It is just as important to remember in order for us to empathize. Without it, we are stuck in an emotional limbo, where our ability to recognize the emotions beyond us and those immediately around us is severely hampered. An inability to understand.

This is why you should have physical books. Not only so that you do not forget the things you've read. Or that you are more effective when trying to think about things, but that it is perhaps just as important to remember the things we have felt. So that we can continue to be reminded of them. So that we can continue to feel them. Reading physical books allows us to expand outward beyond ourselves more readily than other mediums. It gives us the experience necessary to feel and to remember.


Evans, Charlie. “The Science of Emotions.” How It Works, 22 Feb. 2019, www.howitworksdaily.com/the-science-of-emotions/.

Keim, Brandon. “Why the Smart Reading Device of the Future May Be ... Paper.” Wired, Conde Nast, www.wired.com/2014/05/reading-on-screen-versus-paper/.

Kidd, David Comer, and Emanuele Castano. “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind.” Science, American Association for the Advancement of Science, 18 Oct. 2013, science.sciencemag.org/content/342/6156/377.

Lenzen, Manuel. “Feeling Our Emotions.” Scientific American, Scientific American, 1 Apr. 2005, www.scientificamerican.com/article/feeling-our-emotions/.

Locke, Susannah. “Want to Fall Asleep Faster? Don't Use an IPad before Bed.” Vox, Vox, 22 Dec. 2014, www.vox.com/2014/12/22/7435685/ipad-sleep.

Mangen, Anne, et al. “Reading Linear Texts on Paper versus Computer Screen: Effects on Reading Comprehension.” International Journal of Educational Research, vol. 58, 2013, pp. 61–68., doi:10.1016/j.ijer.2012.12.002. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/256563189_Reading_linear_texts_on_paper_versus_computer_screen_Effects_on_reading_comprehension

Marder, Eve. “The Importance of Remembering.” ELife, ELife Sciences Publications, Ltd, 14 Aug. 2017, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5577906/.

Spence, Charles. “The Multisensory Experience of Handling and Reading Books.” Brill, Brill, 15 Sept. 2020, brill.com/view/journals/msr/33/8/article-p902_4.xml?language=en.

“Why Emotionally Charged Events Are So Memorable.” ScienceDaily, ScienceDaily, 7 Oct. 2007, www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/10/071004121045.htm#:~:text=Scientists%20have%20now%20identified%20the,to%20form%20new%20memory%20circuits.

Wästlund, Erik, et al. “Effects of VDT and Paper Presentation on Consumption and Production of Information: Psychological and Physiological Factors.” Computers in Human Behavior, Pergamon, 27 Mar. 2004, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0747563204000202?np=y.


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