In Praise of Paper Books

spectatorflyleafI recently started rereading a book I bought many years ago – one volume of an eight volume collected set of The Spectator, a London daily periodical from the early 18th century.  William Addison and Joseph Steele wrote most of the The Spectator’s 2500-word, witty and wise essays on serious topics of social value.  A typical piece warns against the dangers of using “party lying” (i.e. propaganda) to advance a political cause.  Another is an extended meditation on eternity.  Several offer a serialized, detailed review of Milton’s works.

This may sound like somewhat hard going, but The Spectator is nothing if not eclectic.  It includes comic short stories involving a good-natured but dim country squire named Roger de Coverley.  You can find parody advertisements a quarter millennium before Saturday Night Live — for an elocution school for parrots or a dentist who offered to extract teeth from masquerade goers without removing their masks.  And in one memorable exchange of letters, a prim young woman named Matilda Mohair wrote to condemn the unseemly practice of young men pushing women on swings as an excuse to catch a glimpse of their legs.  Within a week, four other correspondents wrote, claiming to know Matilda and saying she was only objecting because she had crooked legs.  One even said she was with child “despite her crooked legs.”  It’s an exchange I could easily see happening on Twitter.

The Spectator was wildly popular in its time, with an estimated daily readership, in London’s fashionable coffeehouses and salons, of nearly 20,000 at a time when books were typically printed in lots of 500.  Even before the daily issues stopped running, publishers were collecting the essays into an eight-volume set that was reprinted every few years for more than a century.  It only began to fall out of favor in the late 19th century.

My volume is part of a small (duodecimo) leather-bound, illustrated set from the 1767 London printing.  Because The Spectator was so popular, you can still find individual eighteenth-century volumes in good condition for about the cost of a modern hardback.  This particular volume played a role in my own life.  When my wife and I were courting, I used to read the essays aloud to her.  She particularly liked one that explored the value of a garden — the essayist suggests using evergreens to create a winter garden and recommends using plants native to the area, “such as rejoice in the soil.” (By the way, reading your favorite works aloud is not a bad way to find a soulmate.)

The thing that delights me most about this particular book, though, is the inscriptions written in the flyleaf by the book’s previous owners. One reads, “George R. MacGregor, Dart. College, March 30th, 1841.”  The second, “M. M. Magrath, 14 April 1812, HMS Modeste, India.”  Another inscription on the title page reads “M. Monk Magrath.”

I haven’t been able to find out much about George, but thanks to the miracle of the internet, I now know the HMS Modeste was a 36-gun frigate, built and launched by the French in 1786, and captured (the French say “stolen”) by the British in Genoa in 1793.  It was showing its age when it spent the last years of the Napoleanic wars in the East Indies, hunting down privateers and transporting troops, and it was broken up in 1814.  I was also able to find records mentioning an assistant naval surgeon named Miles Monk Magrath, though he was born in 1835.  I suspect that would be Miles Junior, the son of my book’s owner, who apparently followed his father both into the navy and into the far east – he’s buried in a cemetery in Hong Kong.

Whenever I see the prediction that e-readers will mean the end of paper books, I think of this little 250-year-old volume.  Understand, I’m not a Neo-Luddite.  E-readers are wonderful devices, offering an infinite bookshelf, often without charge.  In fact, the entire run of The Spectator is available for free from both Kindle and Nook.  (The “crooked legs” incident can be found in #496, September 29, 1712.)  But paper books, especially used books, still provide a pleasure that an electronic reader can never match – a visceral connection with both the work and with other readers.  As I read The Spectator, I can’t help thinking of George taking a break from his studies in the New Hampshire winter or Miles in his cabin fighting a war half a world away from home, holding the same volume I’m holding now and chuckling along with me at Matilda and her crooked legs.

I suspect that e-readers will eventually replace paper books the way self-propelled ships have replaced sailing vessels like the Modeste – never completely, and only where efficiency and expense matter.  Nearly all ocean traffic today is carried by ships with motors, but sailing vessels are still out there.  Most navies still maintain one or more square-rigged tall ships as training vessels because there is no better way to teach a crew to work together than by having them reef a topsail in a storm.  And plenty of cruise lines and museums keep tall ships afloat simply because the joy of sailing in them is like nothing else on earth.

The books that e-readers will replace are the cheap paperbacks, with small type, newsprint-quality paper, and bindings that crack the first time they’re opened.  The racks of throwaway paperbacks in airports and grocery store checkout lines will probably disappear.  But well-made books will survive because the physicality they provide can’t be found with an e-reader.  Books are more than just the information they contain.  They have heft. They have a particular, delightful scent – two scents, actually, new book or old.  They can be loaned to friends, passed on to relatives.  And even if you’re reading a brand new book, it’s easy to imagine someone a hundred years or more from now holding that same book and enjoying it just the way you are.

So write your name, date, and place on the flyleaf.  You never know who will read it.

What are your favorite experiences with physical books?  Any serendipitous finds?  What would you read out loud to your true love?


About Dave King

Dave King is the co-author of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, a best-seller among writing books. An independent editor since 1987, he is also a former contributing editor at Writer's Digest. Many of his magazine pieces on the art of writing have been anthologized in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing and in The Writer's Digest Writing Clinic. You can check out several of his articles and get other writing tips on his website.


  1. says

    **What are your favorite experiences with physical books? **

    I just love the experience of going to a major library and being surrounded by loads of great books and a wealth of information.

    Its like being fully immersed in a 3D interactive internet.

    I was a real bookworm as a teenager (this was before the internet had really established itself, back in 1997/1998) and I enjoyed going to the library of an afternoon and simply reading to my hearts content.
    Katherine James´s last blog post ..3 Steps To Boosting Your Daily Word Count

  2. says

    I grew up in a town that had a Carnegie library — I still have my library card. It was there that I found the complete Sherlock Holmes and a couple of good Jules Verne anthologies, among other things.

  3. says

    Such a good post, Dave! I love the used bookstores that are hanging on these days and try to support them regularly. I have a Kindle too but nothing beats sitting with a book on your lap and turning the pages as the story moves along. That click of the Kindle screen just doesn’t soothe the same way. I recall a famous author saying ‘a house without books is like a room without windows.’ There will always be books as long as we as readers keep demanding we love them and keep buying them, old and new.
    Paula Cappa´s last blog post ..Midwest Book Review

    • says

      One of the things I love about used bookstores is the unexpected finds — books you would never have thought to buy because you didn’t know they existed. Granted the “if you liked that, you might like this” algorithms are getting more sophisticated. But they’re all based on what you’ve liked in the past. They won’t introduce you to something completely new.

      Just last year, I stumbled across The Invisible Host, a psychological thriller from 1930. It’s said to be the inspiration for Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians. I’d never heard of it before.

  4. says

    Somethings require an actual physical presence. I ask myself, not quite facetiously, which of my books will go with me to the nursing home if there is a very small bookshelf there. Here are some:

    A book with my grandfather’s careful annotations by hand – what he underlined connects me to his thoughts.

    A copy of The Other Side of the Moon, by Meriol Trevor, which I loved as a child, was given away by my mother at some point, I located by accident at the library, photocopied for each of my children – and then found a physical copy being sold by a library, and bought.

    My dog-eared copies of Gaudy Night and Busman’s Honeymoon with my favorite parts marked.

    My set of the first four Dune novels.

    And The Complete Sherlock Holmes, which my husband bought for me as a birthday present when he remembered I had once said I would love to have it.

    Two Aaron Marc Stein detective novels, one dedicated by him to my grandparents (For them, Acapulco was never like this), and the other to my husband and me (we helped him buy his first computer, and Apple II).

    There are a few more, but each one is connected strongly to a memory, and keeps that memory fresh.

    They are not just books, even though I read them.

    I can’t imagine keeping a set of bits on an ereader as a substitute.

    Good post, good questions.
    Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt´s last blog post ..Added PRIDE’S CHILDREN – Chapter 12, Scene 4

  5. says

    I love the mental exercise — what books would you bring. It’s a lot more telling than a bucket list.

    And I love the story of the connection to your grandfather. That’s exactly the sort of human connection I was celebrating with this piece.

  6. Denise Willson says

    “All hail the book!”

    Great post, Dave.

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth, and (coming soon) GOT

  7. says

    Alicia, thanks for citing ‘Busman’s Honeymoon’. The first chapters had me hooting in delight and pounding the arms of my reading chair. How deliciously drool.

    But, seriously…I have faith that even electronic stories will be available indefinitely as 1) nothing on the Internet is ever lost (check headlines regarding our politicians) and 2) excellent gathering and archiving services (like the NSA) have them stored securely.
    alex wilson´s last blog post ..White Space

    • says

      I’m not entirely certain about the long-term survival of electronic stories, though it is possible. Still, some years ago, I read of a study of the best way to store data for long periods of time. The best answer, short of carving it in stone, was acid-free paper. And I have read that even newsprint — the bound volumes of old newspapers — outlast the microfilm that was supposed to replace them.

      One of my bookstore finds is a collection of edicts published in 1640 in response to the growing anti-royalist sentiment in England. It’s a wonderful book, with an introduction written by Charles I that mentions his grandmother, Elizabeth, of dear memory. The edicts themselves command Churches to celebrate the king’s birthday as a holy day and strictly forbid the owning of books written by papists and “sectaries” (Puritans, Baptists, other riffraff).

      It’s had to imagine an electronic medium that would still be readable after 374 years.

    • says

      Drool AND droll.

      I think you can separate people into two groups by whether they like Busman’s Honeymoon beyond all sanity, or can’t get it.

      Obviously, you and I are in the first group.

      Sayers is one of my inspirations, along with Jane Eyre, in the department of ‘if it matters, it’s worth working for.’ And waiting for. And changing for.

      And writing.
      Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt´s last blog post ..Writing with CFS and brain fog: Tradeoffs

  8. says

    Er, perhaps I meant ‘droll’. As I get further into my drooling age, I make such mistakes (publically, embarrassingly) with increasing regularity. (Don’t get me started on ‘regularity’).
    alex wilson´s last blog post ..White Space

  9. says

    The Spectator is alive and well still. It is a weekly, not a daily. These days there is an Australian edition which includes the first 10 pages on Aus politics and social comment while the rest is on the UK, politics, society, arts, etc. It is as lively as ever, tho probably doesn’t have the clout is used to back in the 19th century. I enjoy its arrival each week in my letterbox as it is one of the few things I seem to read on paper these days.

    • says

      I’m glad to hear it, Irene. I know there were periodic revivals of The Spectator over the centuries since the original. I’m glad to hear Addison and Steele’s groundbreaking effort is still being remembered.

  10. says

    Dave, I’ve iPadded about and warmed myself with Kindling on a regular basis, but I love to return for print books for their tactile comfort, heft and smell (and typographic allure), as you said. I have what looks like a horsewhipped 1963 version of Hesse’s Steppenwolf, duct-taped and humbled by time, the inside cover of which I glued a Silver Surfer comic book panel and a “superb…” note of mine from high school, which surprised me anew when I looked at it now.

    One of my favorites is a giant 1954 (a coffee-table book because it’s as big as a coffee table) 768-page “Library of Universal Knowledge,” which I love for the kind of naive confidence of the title alone. It dubs itself the “Practical Self-Educator” and is kind of a dictionary, encyclopedia, farmer’s almanac and secret charm book all in one.

    On its inside-cover back page it’s signed in bold strokes by what looks like a fountain pen with “This dictionary property of …” and then an entire family of signatures and a Santa Cruz, CA address.

    I do hope when they got rid of it that they had absorbed most of its universal knowledge.
    Tom Bentley´s last blog post ..Stealing Grandma’s Word Machine

    • says

      I love those old self-help books — the recourse of the curious in the days before the internet. You’re right, there’s a confidence and a curiosity in the culture that produced those books.

      Some years ago, I stumbled across the “blue book” series — small, 20 or 30 page pamphlets published in the twenties and thirties, intended for ordinary people who wanted to better themselves. (Gatsby was the product of this culture.) There are little blue books on everything from how to tie knots to how to understand Einstein’s Relativity. They were kind of an inexpensive alternative to your coffee-table book.

  11. says

    What a lovely story about the unique history of a single volume. What I like it that the book itself isn’t rare. That keeps the story in reach.

    When I was in law school, I hunted down and bought a used dictionary — Webster’s 2nd Edition, Unabridged, 1957. It’s one of those library dictionaries I used as a child that sat on a stand built especially for it. In it I found a prayer card for the Chaplain at the Naval Academy who died in 1977. Whoever had the dictionary before me knew the Chaplain, so now I know him.

    Even with Google at the ready for looking up errant words, I keep my dictionary open and within reach of my desk.
    Kathryn Goldman´s last blog post ..Write, Read, Repeat, Improve

    • says

      I suspected when I wrote this article that there would be a lot of WU readers with loving connections to old books. Thank you for sharing yours, Kathryn.

  12. says

    Someone please write the story: Matilda and her Crooked Legs :)

    When I was a poor graduate student, I found an entire collection of piano lessons and supplementary books by International Music Co. (1925). And let me tell you, their lesson plans are nothing like Schaum’s or Thompson’s that I studied. I still use those beautifully bound books just to play, sometimes to instruct my own children.

    When my husband and I were moving from IN to WA, we stopped at a used book store and I picked up AJ Cronin’s Adventure’s in Two Worlds! It is the book that planted the seed of becoming a writer when I was 12. Ah, such treasures.

    I had a very hard time parting with nearly half our home library when we moved to SC three yrs ago, but physical books remain a huge part of our lives.
    Vijaya´s last blog post ..The Donkey

  13. says

    Vijaya’s comment reminded me of another question I should have asked at the end of the article — what’s the first book you fell in love with? For me, it was Jonathan Livingston Seagull, which I first encountered in the Reader’s Digest condensed version. I was ten at the time. I still own the copy I bought back then.

  14. says

    Mr. Right is a doctor of natural medicine. For breadth of knowledge, beautiful bookmaking, and that sense of history conveyed by leather bindings and inscriptions on the flyleaf, little beats 19th and early 20th century medical books.

  15. says

    When you go into a new friend or acquaintance’s home, and you see their bookshelf, it tells stories about who they are. It prompts discussions, and people inevitably bond. Usually, there’s a bit of laughter over what books haven’t been read yet!

    This experience just doesn’t feel the same over an electronic screen.

    I hope bookstores and libraries develop even more as social centers, rather than solely as limited business models, as I think this will extend the survival of paper books.

    Final thought – I think for many of us, we take certain things for granted that aren’t necessarily as universal in other places as they appear to be in our immediate environment. Kindle/ etc might be one such thing. It’s a device that symbolizes financial and technological privilege, to a degree.

    • says

      Good point about e-readers being a matter of privilege. Although that may change as prices come down and used devices start hitting the market.

      But you’re absolutely right about bookshelves as a vehicle of self-expression. Our living room, small as it is, has maybe 21 feet of bookshelf space total. (There are a lot more books upstairs and in the attic.) It’s a mix of classical and British history, gardening books, standard collections (Bullfinch, the complete Grimm’s, Sherlock Holmes, Shakespeare). There are two shelves of mysteries old and new, waiting to be read, and a fair number of reference books (including the two volume, 1925 New Century Dictionary — one of the most beautifully illustrated dictionaries produced). It tells a lot about us.

  16. CK Wallis says

    As the former owner of a small, independent bookstore, this post touches my own obvious love of books.

    I did not grow up in a “reading” family but in a noisy, blue-collar one, with working parents who spent most of their spare time drinking and/or fighting, and boisterous younger siblings who were frequently left in my care. As a rule, the only reading material in our house was an occasional newspaper or magazine. However, I did have a grandmother and a couple of uncles who were great storytellers, and it was those stories that led me to books and reading.

    When I was in first grade, one of my first school field trips was to the large public library downtown, where I was stunned by the number of books. I still remember wondering how many stories there must be in the world to need that many books, coupled with the feeling that I could hardly wait to “learn all the words” so I could read them.

    Recently, I’ve wondered if I would have had the same reaction if, instead of that trip to the library, I’d been given a Kindle, where the stories ‘disappear’ when they’re not being read. Would I have had that same sense of awe and anticipation holding an electronic device filled with bits of data as I did being literally surrounded by stories? Would I have raced to the Kindle to spend hours ‘browsing’ the ‘content’ the way I used to browse library shelves?

    As an adult, I’m aware that my personal library is both a resource and now a large part of my life story. As a resource, I’ve found physical books are still as important to me as the internet. While I’m just beginning to write fiction, I’ve done some non-fiction writing, and I’ve discovered that just the physical presence of books can spark some serendipitous moments during the writing. The memory jog I get from seeing a particular book has given me those “Oh, I could use that quote in this part…” moments. And, again, I wonder, would I have remembered without that visual cue? Would those ‘inspired’ moments still occur if all my bookcases were reduced to one small, handheld device?

  17. says

    I have a hardbound volume of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. It is a huge book, and due to its size, the print is microscopic, at least it is to my aging eyes. I love that book. I have had it for years and it has traveled with me throughout all of my many cross-country moves. I have to admit that I love my Kindle. I never expected to. In fact, the day I walked into an electronic store to buy a new TV, a Kindle was the last thing on my mind. My roommate had mentioned it and she was interested in buying one, so I followed her over to the display. When I looked at the demo and realized that the font could be changed, I was converted. I walked out with the TV and the Kindle. I do have many books though and so does my roommate. We exchange books all the time. I would not spare any expense to take them with me. The thought of the bookstore and library demise saddens me. I think eventually it will all be digital, but thankfully, not in my lifetime. I don’t think I could bear not being around the printed book. Thank you for another great post, Dave.
    Rebecca Vance´s last blog post ..ANNOUNCEMENT: CONTEST #2 ENTRIES

    • says

      I wouldn’t despair, Rebecca. As I said, I think that the role of paper books will shrink, but it won’t disappear because there will always be people who appreciate the experience of reading them.

      In fact, I suspect that paper books will be “rediscovered” every couple of decades, the way that a lot of younger music lovers are rediscovering the joy of vinyl on a turntable.

  18. says


    What I like about The Spectator is its presumption that its readers are educated, thoughtful, curious and comfortable with irony.

    General readers seem from another century. Even in our literary world we live in rule-bound genres and gated writers communities. It’s somewhat rare to find folk who are truly widely read.

    It’s like the world we live in. A liberal arts degree is as out of date as learning Latin. Partisanship in politics is the norm. Obsession and single-mindedness are considered good things. The 500 channels on TV have not made us more open but more narrow.

    Paper books hark to a time of broadening the mind. The Kindle offers an infinite bookshelf but I wonder how often that’s how Kindle libraries look. Does ease of use make for broader taste or does it mean folks just buy a lot more of what they already like?

    I’m sure paper books do not guarantee a pliable mind, nor do electronic books automatically lock readers in a mental fortress. But dimly glowing screens do seem to reflect our age, just as printed books make us long for another.

    The nice thing is that we can still buy paper books…and also we can read The Spectator electronically. I hope more do. Thanks, Dave.
    Donald Maass´s last blog post ..Review: Steles of the Sky by Elizabeth Bear

    • says

      One of the things that delights me about the Spectator is its eclectic nature. It does assume that the same people who would be interested in Milton would be interested in gentle mockery of fashion. (I’m thinking of the description of the night at the opera in which the women divided into warring camps depending on where on their faces they placed their beauty patches. For those of you who don’t know, a beauty patch was a decorative artificial mole. I am not making this up.) When I read of the number of Americans who, when asked to find it on the map, placed the Ukraine somewhere in Nebraska, I despair of our incuriosity. And when I read a lot of our political punditry, I really despair at the lack of civil discourse.

      On the other hand, educated people have despaired of the incuriosity of the young before. I remember reading a complaint, published in the late nineteenth century, that kids were ignoring real literature to waste their time with Dickens and Scott. There have been times in the past when civil discourse has sunk to even lower levels than today. The exchanges between Thomas Moore and Martin Luther in the sixteenth century have been called some of the vilest insults ever written in fine Ciceronian Latin.

      I’m sure there are a lot of readers out there for whom the infinite bookshelf is just an opportunity to read more writers who confirm their worldview. Epistemic closure is real and dangerous. But reading, once you get into it, is a very subversive habit. One thing leads to another, and soon you’re reading people who don’t think quite the same way as you, and enjoying it.

  19. says

    A bit of news? The 1767 set that I have is incomplete, and I’ve been meaning for years to complete it — that’s why I pulled them off the shelves again. This morning, I received a copy of Volume 1 from the 1753 printing — identical to the 1767 edition. The first thing I did was turn to the flyleaf, where I found:

    Mrs. Matonia Tayler from her brother M. Tayler, Sept. 1846.

    And under that:

    Charles T. Leeds, Aug. 1896.

    It seems I have some new reading companions.

  20. says

    Similac still taints my breath in this fabulous world of printed fibrous plants. I have a fair share of paper and charged ion books. Recently, I purchase a moderate number of kindle books from different genres, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Lake, Pride and Prejudice, Frankenstein, Tale of two Cities, and Black Boy, just to name a few. At this point in my life I’m only interested in what’s inside the book. Paper books can be decorative though.
    Brian B. King´s last blog post ..Book Giveaway from Author Danika Dinsmore

  21. Louise Reynolds says

    Fabulous post, Dave. I have a large library of pre-loved books across a range of subjects. Over the years I’ve discovered old letters or pondered over an inscription that offered an insight into why this book for that person. Perhaps the one that brought me closest to the previous owner is a first edition of Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s “The Worst Journey in The World”, about a truly brutal Antarctic experience in the early 20thC. The pages were thick, the edges furred from the paper knife. When I got about three-quarters of the way through I realised that the original owner had never finished the book, as the pages were uncut. Huge decision – do I cut and keep reading? Of course I did – for the novel experience of cutting pages as much as the story by then – but I’ve often wondered why the original owner put down that book and never returned.

    • says

      I love that story, Louise. I, too, once stumbled across a late nineteenth-century book with uncut pages — A Modern Gulliver, in which the author returns to the island of the Houyhnhnms. I didn’t have the heart to cut the pages but read the book by carefully spreading the uncut pages open enough to peek at the text. I eventually sold the book on eBay (it’s a small house, and we have a LOT of books), so presumably someone else had the pleasure.