Jewish Journal

The Paper Rebellion: An Excerpt

The Internet is an unending conversation; every argument is rebutted, shared, revised, and extended. It is a real-time extension of happenings in the world, exhilarating and exhausting.

I suppose my abandonment of the Kindle is a response to this exhaustion. It’s not that the Kindle is a terrible device. In fact, it’s downright placid compared to the horns and jackhammers blaring on social media. But after so many hours on the Web, I crave escaping the screen, retreating to paper.

It was predicted that e-books would overtake the paper book, that they would become the totality of publishing. Well, doomsday has come and gone. Paper books have held their ground, and e-book sales have failed to accumulate at their predicted pace. Actually, they have plummeted.

My hunch is that a good portion of the reading public wants an escape from the intense flow of the Internet; they want silent reading, private contemplation — and there’s a nagging sense that paper, and only paper, can induce such a state. The popular gravitation back to the page — not the metaphorical page, but the fibrous thing you can rub between your fingers — is a gravitation back to fundamental lessons from the history of reading.

I apologize for the following disclosure, which isn’t intended to implant any insoluble images: My favorite place to read is the tub. A warm soak, the platonic state of mental openness and relaxation but for the possibility of water damage to the page. If the tub is occupied by another member of my brood, I will tolerate the bed. Obese pillows behind the back, a strong lamp spotlighting the text.

It’s a banal disclosure, really. These are quite common locales for reading, perhaps the most common. Indeed, the entire history of the printed word points toward consuming books in such intimate settings, toward reading alone in our place of refuge. We choose to read in private to escape, but also because of the intellectual possibilities that this escape creates.

My hunch is that a good portion of the reading public wants an escape from the intense flow of the Internet; they want silent reading, private contemplation — and there’s a nagging sense that paper, and only paper, can induce such a state. 

During the early Middle Ages, the book was quite literally a miracle. It was the means by which the priest conveyed the word of God. Literacy was sparse. In Europe, maybe one in one hundred people could read. As the historian Steven Roger Fischer puts it, “to read” was to read aloud. Silent reading was a highly unusual practice. There are only a handful of recorded instances of it, worthy of note because they so shocked observers. Reading was perhaps the ultimate social activity. Storytellers read to the market, priests read to their congregations, lecturers read to university students, the literate read aloud to themselves. Medieval texts commonly asked audiences to “lend ears.”

Despite the relative intellectual bleakness of the era, literacy slowly crept beyond a small elite. The growth of commerce created the glimmerings of a new merchant class, along with professional texts that catered to its needs. Texts — once imposing blocks of letters, with one word jammed into the next, no white spaces separating them — were tamed by new syntactical rules. There were increasingly breaks between words, punctuation even. Reading grew less strenuous, more accessible. It took several hundred years for the changes to fully register, for public reading to give way to silent reading.

It was one of the most profound transformations in human history. Reading ceased to be a passive, collective experience. It became active and private. Silent reading changed thinking; it brought the individual to the fore. The act of private reading — in beds, in libraries — provided the space for heretical thought.

If the tech companies hope to absorb the totality of human existence into their corporate fold, then reading on paper is one of the few slivers of life that they can’t fully integrate. The tech companies will consider this an engineering challenge waiting to be solved. Everyone else should take regular refuge in the sanctuary of paper.


From “World Without Mind” by Franklin Foer, published by Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2017 by Franklin Foer.