The Books Briefing: The Essential Qualities of a Book

The case for and against e-readers: Your weekly guide to the best in books

An open book in black-and-white
Tyler Knorr / EyeEm / Getty

What is a book? Is it simply the text we read, whether on bound pages or on a screen? Or is it a tangible object, something held with human hands and made richer by the way we physically interact with it? These are questions that Atlantic writers have been considering for at least a decade, and they don’t have easy, definitive answers.

Recently, the Atlantic contributing writer Ian Bogost made the case that ebooks are an abomination, a technology that takes away from the pleasure of reading and erodes the “bookiness” of books. The definition of bookiness is dependent on how any one individual conceives of that idea, but Bogost makes a compelling argument that it isn’t wholly present in ebooks or e-readers. Other authors, however, have noted ebooks’ potential benefits: Both the professor Alan Jacobs and the journalist Megan McArdle believe that ebooks’ resources—their transferability, their ease of annotation, their searchability—can make reading much easier.

In her defense of ebooks, McArdle also points out that school-age kids, able to read assigned books on e-readers, will develop mental information maps that are navigated via keywords and search, rather than physical markers. This possible shift worries the high-school English teacher Abigail Walthausen, who thinks that the expansiveness and information overload of e-readers could be detrimental to students’ learning and focus.

Reading a physical book and reading an ebook will never be the same experience, but perhaps it’s helpful to remember that both can promote a love of literature in any form.

Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas. Know other book lovers who might like this guide? Forward them this email.

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What We’re Reading

Someone opens a book to its title page.

What is a book?

“A book is a unique string of words, as good as its bits. But printed books are also objects, manufactured objects, owned objects, objects that have been marked by pencils and time and coffee cups and the oils from our skin.”

📚 Book Traces: Nineteenth-Century Readers and the Future of the Library, by Andrew M. Stauffer
📚 Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper, by Nicholson Baker

A book dissolving into pixels

Getty / The Atlantic

Ebooks are an abomination

“Agreeing that books are a thing you read is easy enough. But what it means to read, what the experience of reading requires and entails, and what makes it pleasurable or not, is not so easy to pin down.”

📚 Six Centuries of Type & Printing, by Glenn Fleishman
📚 Not to Put Too Fine a Point on It, by Glenn Fleishman

A young person reads on an e-reader.

Randall Hill / Reuters

The e-reader: the most daunting anthology

“I find that the size and shape of printed texts have a lot to tell us about e-readers: Though these devices are small and convenient to carry, they are loaded with weight of information that is hard to shoulder and important to acknowledge.”

📚 Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World, by Naomi S. Baron

A hand hold an Amazon Kindle.

Books may be better objects, but ebooks are better tools

“What we have here is best described not as fixity or fluidity, but as transferability—a reassuring kind of consistency across platforms and formats. You might say that this is fixity enabled by fluidity: the reproducibility of pixels combined with the stability of Amazon’s enormous database amount to insurance against the fragility of any particular designed object.”

📚 Breaking Bread With the Dead: A Reader’s Guide to a More Tranquil Mind, by Alan Jacobs
📚 How to Think, by Alan Jacobs

The annoyances of ebooks

“New technologies are like that. They don’t actually have to be faster, or better, than any conceivable product. They just have to be better in key ways than the competition.”

📚 The Up Side of Down, by Megan McArdle

About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Tori Latham. The book she just finished enjoying is The Night Watchman, by Louise Erdrich.

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