I’m part of the e-book generation, but nothing beats the printed page

A mother and son explore new piles of children’s literature at the BPL. Photo: Beth Heller

One Saturday last November, I walked into the place I most missed going during quarantine — my local public library. The familiar shelves made me smile behind my mask. The building was essentially the same as I remembered it over a year and a half earlier.

As a child, the library was my favorite place. My mom took me out every weekend and I loved exploring new books categorized alphabetically and by their respective genres.

There was so much to find, borrow and read. When I was about 7, I once borrowed 50 books and couldn’t understand why I couldn’t borrow more. I loved the “Geronimo Stilton” series, “A Series of Unfortunate Events”, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”, “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” from the Chronicles of Narnia series and “Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library” , ” Just to name a few.

Now that I’m older, I go to the library without an adult and take my 12-year-old brother. He also likes the library. He particularly enjoys reading books that are part of a series. He also enjoys the “Did you know?” books, he says, because “they contain interesting facts and fun graphics”. He doesn’t think the “Did you know?” the graphics are also vivid in digital formats. “They don’t jump as much,” he says.

Back in the library as a teenager, I felt warmed at the sight of parents reading to their toddlers. In the children’s section, there are comfortable sofas in colors like green and purple that form a small circular shape where children can lie down and start reading (like I used to). The checkout area is spacious, with newly arrived books on low shelves right in front of the checkout computers. I was happy to see that Mrs. H, the kind, bespectacled elderly woman in charge of the children’s section since my youth was still there, recommending stories to curious children. I also saw myself in the young children waiting at reception with stacks of books to borrow.

As these thoughts and memories came to the surface, I walked into the children’s section of the library and started looking for an interesting novel. I came across “Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck and immediately swelled with emotion. Two years earlier, in my freshman English class, I had read the PDF version during distance learning. As my class finished discussing the ending of the story, I turned off my Zoom camera because I was sobbing as I read the passages describing Lennie’s fate.

Although I had seen the author’s name in the online version, it was different to feel the thin novel in my hand with “John Steinbeck” printed on the cover. As my fingers traced the raised outline of the author’s name, the slight bumps in the lettering inexplicably made me feel a more intimate connection to the author.

The novel was also light as a feather and about the size of my hand, evoking a familiar sense of disappointment I often feel when holding a thin book: This story will end too soon, and I don’t want it to end so soon..

I grabbed a chair to re-read the ending when an older man walked into the library and spoke to a lady, possibly his wife or a friend. His words made me look away from Steinbeck’s writing. The gentleman said, “Where do you see a child reading these days? This library will soon turn into a cafe. No one reads paper books. Everyone is on devices.

Hearing this, I felt like shouting while waving my book: “Look, sir! I always read library books! And I certainly won’t let this library turn into a cafe! But those words died in my throat.

For the few hours that remained until the library closed, I thought about what the man had said. I wondered: how many people had he met reading printed books? Around me, teenagers had headphones in their ears, talking to friends or staring at laptops. The man was right; the atmosphere was like a Starbucks or internet cafe, only with shelves around. When I looked out the library window, I saw a child in a pram, happily watching a fun counting lesson on his mother’s cell phone.

After the library closed, I went home to do some research. It was no shock to learn that young people spend more time on digital media than on so-called traditional media: printed books, magazines and newspapers. According to a 2019 study in Psychology of Popular Media Culture, in the late 1970s, 60% of high school seniors reported reading a book or magazine almost every day; in 2016, only 16% had done so.

But reading online – clicking “Next” rather than turning the page – feels robotic to me. I often feel like I don’t appreciate the author’s writing enough when I read digital files. But when I leaf through a book, it’s as if I’m cradling the essence of the characters. I can visualize the plot better, because I can act out the scenes of each moment in my head with more precision and imagination. Some printed books have a particular smell that makes the novel special to me. It’s hard to describe but I’m sure I’m not the only one thinking that.

I know I can’t convince every teenager to switch from digital to print, but maybe writing about the difference will get some of them thinking about it.

A version of this essay was originally published by Youth communications.

Winnie Lin is a sophomore at Francis Lewis High School who advocates for more traditional readers in today’s tech-infused society. As an avid reader, history buff, environmental activist, and proud Chinese-American born in Manhattan and raised in Queens, it’s not uncommon to see her devouring stacks of books, finding videos on the Mongol Empire, converse deeply with trees, observe the behavior of squirrels, and perfect my French and Chinese language skills.


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