Kindling A Passion For Print: On the E-book vs. Print Book War

On the surface of things, liking print books makes no sense.

Recently, a friend saw my shelves and floor strewn all over with books and accused me of being a hipster. “Who buys physical books anymore?” he scoffed. And he went on to wax lyrical on the comparative merits of the Kindle, which I won’t get into here as that topic has already been covered in-depth by many. Unless you’re technologically challenged, my friend insists, or you live under a rock, there’s no good reason for a real book lover to continue buying books in print. Claims about the ‘feel’ of a physical book, often glossed over as something ‘indescribable,’ are founded on irrational sentiments such as nostalgia, which ought not to have an impact on a real book lover’s choice of book format. After all, if I really loved books, my decision would be based on practical considerations; so anything that allows me to read more often and widely would be the winner. A Kindle allows ease of travel, greater access to more books at cheaper prices, word search functions, and it isn’t even any worse for your eyes than a book-book is. So, my friend concludes, the only reason why anyone would to buy book-books is that they want to look good–whether to others or just themselves.

I must say I agree with him on the merits of the Kindle–I don’t go anywhere without mine–but I wouldn’t dismiss physical books entirely. When studying complex subjects or texts that require multiple cross-references, it helps to lay out print versions of books and essays all around me. I work on the floor, Japanese-style, so I have a whole circle of space around me for me to get a bird’s eye view of my research, draw links between different sources, and jot down notes. Mapping ideas out physically helps me remember them better than just highlighting them in an e-book. And when I want to recall something I read, in a physical book I’d remember roughly where to flip to; whereas if I can’t remember any keywords, the Kindle’s search function would be useless . Of course, the search function is also invaluable in research, so sometimes I would get both the print and electronic versions of the same text.

But I’ve always felt, vaguely, that when reading physical books my brain feels sharper, more focused, and I can concentrate for longer periods of time. With my Kindle I seem to need lots more discipline. I thought this feeling was purely psychological, so I did some quick Googling and found that it’s actually backed by evidence: apparently, a study done by researches in Norway’s Stavanger University found that readers using a Kindle fared significantly worse than paperback readers at recalling when events occured in a mystery story. In immersion, empathy and other emotional responses, though, Kindle fans would be glad to know that both Kindle and paper readers performed equally.

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My Kindle’s my workhorse but reading on it made me appreciate printed texts more.

Well, this is only one study. Would future generations fare better on Kindle if that’s what they grow up with and are used to? I don’t know, but it does help explain why reading texts the old fashioned way feels better to me, especially when it comes to non-fiction. There’s a flow to it that’s supported by the tactile feel of flipping pages, the subconscious awareness of a sheaf of paper rising and falling from one hand to another as you course through the novel. A Kindle, for all its provision of greater mobility, doesn’t have seem to allow you this same ease of travel, because its hardware remains static and its screen fragments the narrative into framed and uniform pages that seem disjointed from one another rather than parts of an organic whole.

Besides, I’ve always liked the idea of passing down physical books. I love my second-hand novels, scribbled with the annotations of strangers, some of them so old they have become ghosts, genius spirits whose names I don’t know but who share my heart and whose voices I hear whispering through these yellowed, dog-eared pages. Every print book collects in its physical form its own history of readership, and so abounds with its own mystery as it evokes in one a sense of worlds and minds beyond one’s own. It’s a vague, delicious sense of transcending space and time. An e-book is only ever yours, replicated in binary code through a multitude of devices, easily replaceable if burnt; and with the current turnover rate for electronics, I won’t be surprised if my great-grandchildren aren’t using Kindles any more.

“So,” you ask me, “should I get a Kindle?” Well, it depends on how you read. Do you devour your books, or savour them? I like to do both, so while I won’t be throwing out my Kindle any time soon, I’ll definitely still be haunting my local of bookstores and libraries, on pain of being called a hipster. Sadly, though, this pool seems to be drying up far too quickly.

三国 (Three Kingdoms)

Regarding his epic fantasy The Lord of the Rings, father of fantasy J. R. R. Tolkien said, “the theatre of my tale is this earth, the one in which we now live, but the historical period is imaginary.” This is why his secondary world Middle-earth, though replete with elves, dwarves and dragons, is bound nevertheless by its own inner laws that stray not too far from the natural laws of our earth. From Homer to George R. R. Martin, myth, or what we now call fantasy, has always been ruled by what Tolkien calls an “inner consistency of reality”; it is that which gives the genre its relevance and appeal. Stories like the Game of Thrones or The Name of the Wind are so loved not because they depict worlds in which anything goes but because they depict characters bound by rules that force them into difficulties or situations they must face with wit, courage, or conscience. Placing them in a different world simply allows us to see, from a different view and perhaps more clearly, the same age-old human conflicts arising from those clashes of interests and values that have been around ever since humans started living together.

I was sucked for the longest time into the whirling Chinese epic 三国, or Three Kingdoms – the 2010 TV series based on Luo Guanzhong’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a Chinese literary classic.

Set in the Han dynasty, the show depicts the struggles between the famous political leaders Cao Cao (曹操), Liu Bei (刘备) and Sun Quan (孙权), as well as the highly impressive, sometimes amusing, other times pitiful, but always entertaining battles of wit between their strategists Sima Yi(司马懿), Zhuge Liang (诸葛亮) and Zhou Yu (周瑜)respectively.

I must admit that I took such a long time watching it because I absolutely refused to rely on English subtitles; so thank God for Pleco, the Chinese-English dictionary app without which my watching of the show would have been a whole lot more tedious. The full force or impact of words are somehow always lost in translation. The rhythms, cadences, meanings and emotional impact of the Chinese poetry and dialogue somehow just seem clumsy in English, or just plain silly.

This is not to say that non-Chinese-speakers cannot enjoy the tale. When I was watching the TV series I was also at the same time reading the English translation of Luo Guanzhong’s novel, and even the bare bones of the plot has sufficient drama to entertain. I found the names confusing, though – often there seemed to be too many characters to remember; characters are not always referred to with the same names (Cao Cao, for instance, is also referred to as Mengde, Cao Mengde or just Cao), and spelling of Chinese names seem inconsistent and overly complicated. Without faces to go with the names it was pretty frustrating. One is much better off watching the TV series, even if it must be with English subs. The plot will blow your mind. I almost fell in love with Zhuge Liang during the show; he’s that brilliant.


Referring to a map of the ancient world of the time of Three Kingdoms was immensely satisfying – a habit which fans of epic fantasy should be familiar with. It gave me a better understanding of the plot, the characters’ strategies and a greater appreciation of their ingenuity.

And in fact the deeds of Zhuge Screen Shot 2014-09-20 at 15.10.14Liang have been thought of as magic. But no, despite being a lover of the Fantasy genre, I must say Zhuge Liang’s ingenuity far outshines any mere magic. Magic, especially under the hands of less talented writers, can sometimes be used as a much too convenient plot point. But anyone who followed closely Game of Thrones for love of the game would find that the game played here is far better played – a dance that, as Patrick Rothfuss would say, reveals the moving of great minds.