One Saturday last November, I stepped into the place I missed going to the most during quarantine—my local public library. The familiar shelves made me smile behind my mask. The building looked mostly the same as I remembered it from more than a year and a half ago.
As a child, the library was my favorite place. My mom took me every weekend and I loved exploring the new books arranged in alphabetical order and according to their respective genres.
There was so much to find, borrow, and read. When I was around 7, I once borrowed 50 books and didn’t understand why I could not 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.
An Afternoon at the Library
Now that I am older, I go to the library without an adult and I take my 12-year-old brother along. He likes the library, too. He particularly likes to read books that are part of a series. He also enjoys the Did You Know? books, he says, because “they have interesting facts and funny graphics.” He doesn’t think the graphics from the Did You Know? books online are as vivid. “They don’t pop as much,” he says.
Now back in the library as a teen, I felt warmed at the sight of parents reading to their toddlers. In the children’s section, there are comfy couches in different colors like green and purple that form a small circular shape where children can plop down and begin reading (like I used to). The check-out area is spacious, with newly arrived books on low shelves directly across from the check-out computers. I was happy to see that Ms. H, the kind, bespectacled older woman in charge of the children’s section from my youth was still there, recommending stories to curious kids. I also saw myself in the young children waiting at the front desk with piles of books to check out.
As these thoughts and memories surfaced, I entered the youth section of the library and began searching for an interesting novel. I came across John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and immediately swelled with emotion. Two years earlier, during my freshman-year English class, I had read the PDF version while we were in remote learning. As my class finished discussing the ending of the story, I turned my Zoom camera off because I was sobbing as I read the passages describing Lennie’s fate.
The Thin Novel in My Hand
Though 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 fingertips traced the embossed outline of the author’s name, the slight bumps of the lettering inexplicably made me feel a more intimate connection with the author.
The novel was also featherlight and around the size of my handspan, evoking a familiar sense of disappointment that I often feel when I hold a thin book: this story will end too soon and I don’t want it to end so fast.
I grabbed a chair to reread the ending when an elderly man walked into the library and spoke to a lady, perhaps his wife or a friend. His words caused me to pry my eyes from Steinbeck’s writing. The gentleman said, “Where do you see a child reading these days? This library will soon turn into a café. No one is reading hard copy books. Everyone is on devices.”
Hearing this, I wanted to shout while waving my book, “Look, sir! I still read library books! And I certainly won’t allow this library to turn into a café!” But my words died in my throat as I watched the man grab his coat and walk out.
For the few hours that remained until the library closed, I thought about what the man said. I wondered: how many people had he encountered reading printed books? Around me, teenagers had earbuds in their ears, talking to friends or staring at a laptop. The man was right; the atmosphere resembled that of a Starbucks or a cybercafé, only with bookshelves around. When I looked out the library window, I saw a child in a baby carriage, gleefully watching an entertaining counting lesson on his mother’s cellphone.
After the library closed, I went home to do some research. It was not a shock to learn that young people spend more time on digital media than on what is known as legacy media: printed books, magazines, newspapers. According to a 2019 study in Psychology of Popular Media Culture, in the late 1970s, 60% of 12th graders said they read a book or magazine almost every day; by 2016, only 16% did.
Charms of Physical Books
Reading online feels robotic to me; it’s like I stare at a screen and click “next” for the following page to appear until the very end of the e-book, and at the end of all of that, I just think, That’s it?
It often feels like I don’t appreciate the author’s writing enough when I read digital files. But when I flip through a book, it’s like I’m cradling and holding onto the essence of the characters. I can visualize the plot better, as I can play the scenes of each moment in my head with more accuracy and imagination.
Some online books are missing components that are in the printed novel. For instance, the physical copy of the fantasy novel Six of Crows contains a map, but the e-book version I read did not. That is an injustice to the reader; after looking and interpreting these maps, the stories made a lot more sense for me, in terms of setting and plot.
And personally, physically flipping to the next page is better than clicking “next.” When reading online, I sometimes worry that I clicked “next” too quickly. It feels more like a race; I want to finish it because the pages just keep making that “flip” sound and I wonder how long the book really is.
Some printed books have a special smell that makes the novel feel special to me. It’s hard to describe but I’m sure I’m not the only one that thinks this. I know I cannot convince every teen to switch from digital to print, but maybe my writing about the difference will at least get some of them to think about it.