Phenomenology of the Printed Book

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Introduction The only copy of Aldous Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy –one of the most important books in the history of literature– at the University of Sydney’s Library, looks like the classic old printed book you find in remote corners of big libraries, old sanctuaries of knowledge: ochre colored pages, vanilla musky smell, oxidized edges and a […]


The only copy of Aldous Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy –one of the most important books in the history of literature– at the University of Sydney’s Library, looks like the classic old printed book you find in remote corners of big libraries, old sanctuaries of knowledge: ochre colored pages, vanilla musky smell, oxidized edges and a deteriorated, bristly cover. On the inside of the cover however, is a detail that makes this particular copy unique: a custom made stamp with the following inscription: “This book is the gift of Miss K.J. Laurence from the Estate of the Late Dr. G.A.M. Heydon”, a notable 19th Century Australian physician from a fabulously wealthy family. Immediately, I begin to wonder about what this book’s life must have been like at Dr. Heydon’s immense library. Who read it? When? Whose are the careful pencil annotations within? Are they his, Miss Laurence’s, or a student’s who years later borrowed the book and felt a subtle possession over it? I inevitably start investigating about the Heydon Family –their lifestyle, their physical appearance, their contributions to society– and it is as if I connect with them, in time, through a single, tangible, material object: this book. From a particular, unrepeatable feature, a distinctive and unique relationship is formed with one particular book.

This isn’t my first experience of the kind; I was born into a family with a private collection of close to three thousand books, including a 17th Century architectural treaty written in Middle Spanish, the language of Cervantes, and marked forever by termites, spots, smells and wrinkles; as well as several first edition volumes my father has been collecting throughout the years. The family’s physical and emotional connection to this small collection is very deep; not only is it part of the architecture of the house –and thus part of the common space– but also a sort of embodiment of our values and aspirations.

Books are objects whose significance is far beyond content, and although it would be foolish to value its form over its substance, the former is certainly a vehicle through which a special connection with the reader is made. This special connection is impossible –perhaps irrelevant– with the digital book (with a specific, particular copy, that is) and I believe that this ultimately has a negative impact on the reading experience, or at least in mine.

This present essay is not an objective qualitative comparison of e-books versus printed books –I do not intend to make them compete as I think it would be quite useless: both have advantages and disadvantages and both are suitable for different occasions; furthermore, at this stage it would be ridiculous to advocate against the advancement of the e-book. Rather, relying on personal experience and Edmund Husserl’s theories of phenomenology, the present research explores the possibilities of human attachment to hard copies: at a physical level, through senses like smell, touch and sight; and an emotional level, like when somebody presents you with a book or you possess a collection. It answers the question of whether a digital book can be ‘special’ or not. The hypothesis is that because e-books are non-material, that is, they exist but they’re intangible and impersonal, they cannot be special. Digital copies are ephemeral virtual graphics; they come and go, they enter and disappear, they are non-static; therefore, they are never unique.



This theoretical frame is not so much my conceptual basis as it is my justification. Of course, one of the main criticisms of phenomenology –pointed out by existentialists like Heidegger– is that because it takes into consideration subjective appreciation or gives individual consciousness an argumentative authority based solely on one experience, then practically any ‘point of view’ can fall under it or be shielded by it, disqualifying any refutation as non-relative. Nonetheless, it is my justification because it serves to sustain my own personal experience with the printed book (although such experience is shared by many others, as I’ll prove with statistics).

Phenomenology is the branch of philosophy that studies the structures of subjective experience and consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view. The single main idea is that “the body is not an extended physical substance in contrast to a non-extended mind, but […] a locus of distinctive sorts of sensations that can only be felt firsthand by the embodied experiencer concerned; and a coherent system of movement possibilities allowing us to experience every moment of our situated, practical-perceptual life as pointing to “more” than our current perspective affords.” (Behnke, 2011)

Phenomenology is the branch of philosophy that studies the structures of subjective experience and consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view.

Husserlian phenomenology is almost in direct opposition to a range of scientific and philosophical movements that practically reigned during the 19th and 20th Centuries, primarily, naturalism, positivism and functionalism “for which material nature is simply a given and conscious life itself is part of nature, to be approached with natural-scientific methods oriented toward empirical facts and causal explanations.” (Behnke, 2011) Phenomenology on the contrary, tries to explain individual, subjective experiences through descriptive methods instead of ascribing generalizations based on causality or correlations. In other words, it gives validity to single individual experiences without the use of the scientific method.

One of the most distinctive and perhaps fascinating qualities of phenomenology is its consideration of variables as ‘essential’, which in platonic terms means that the variables governing direct appreciation are a priori of any biological or natural structure of the brain and thus do not constitute an empirical base, i.e., what I see is not necessarily what you see, therefore we must never generalize. “All constitutive phenomenology is concerned with the correlation between ‘experiencing’ and ‘that which is experienced’—for example, between perceiving and the perceived, remembering and the remembered, and so on. This “universal a priori of correlation” encompasses not only conscious performances actively carried out by the I (for instance, a judging whose correlate is the corresponding judgment), but also deeper strata of subjective experience that often remain unnoticed in everyday life. They can, however, be brought to light by reflecting on the structure of the type of experience concerned.” (Behnke, 2011)

Perhaps the perfect example to illustrate this is the classic case of different witnesses reporting different things about the same crime. While one witness only saw one side of the ‘perceptual object’, e.g. the thief, the other saw another side of it, perhaps because of, for instance, a particular spatial standpoint. In other words, in phenomenology there is a direct but subjective connection between the observer and the observed, the experiencer and the experienced. “In short, Husserl does not presuppose a subject-object split, but operates with a subject-object correlation—a correlation he works out in detail for almost every sphere and stratum of experience.” (Behnke, 2011)

Before I go on to describe what, according to my research and personal phenomenological experience is this special subject-object correlation that people (myself included) experience with the printed book, I’d like to mention that this aspect of phenomenology closely resembles Umberto Eco’s treaty of semiotics The Open Work, whose main idea is that the meaning behind objects of signification –primarily works of art, including books of course– actually resides in the receptor and not only in the producer. The main source of signification –of meaning– is the spectator. Thus, Rembrandt’s The Philosopher in Meditation or Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina has a totally different meaning to each observant depending on a wide variety of ‘standpoints’: context, personality, gender, age, education, etc.



In 2012, The University of Southern California conducted a poll through the L.A Times that threw very interesting results: amidst the height of the digital age, 60% of respondents said they still preferred printed books to digital books. Furthermore, only 10% of participants had abandoned the printed form altogether. In fact, young adults ages 18 to 29 –often considered completely digital– read as much printed copy as their elders (Anton, 2012).

Another interesting study by the American Book Industry Study Group (BISG) also in 2012, found that higher education professors and students in the United States still prefer printed textbooks. The study found that only 12% of faculty and only 16% of students preferred digital books. Furthermore, while 32% of faculty tried to make e-books available if possible, only 2% of students said they actually use them for most of their classes. An earlier poll, Student Attitudes Toward Content in Higher Education (2011) also conducted by the BISG, revealed that 75% of college students said they preferred the printed format “citing a fondness for print’s look and feel, as well as its permanence and ability to be resold.” (BISG, 2011)

75% of college students said they preferred the printed format.

This is not to deny, as I anticipated in the introduction, that e-books have immense advantages over the printed format, among them, portability, interactivity, price, new narrative possibilities, etc. In fact many surveys and studies show that while most readers are still using print, the rate of e-book usage is increasing so rapidly, that soon these numbers will swap. For example, in 2011 alone, there was a 117% increase in e-book sales for publishers who report data to the Association of American Publishers. The same data shows a drop of 35% in paperback sales (Simon, 2012). Along the same lines, a new research by The Pew Internet and American Life Project states that about 20% of U.S adults read an e-book in the past year and there are four times more people reading e-books on any given day now than was the case two years ago (Rainie et.al, 2012).

Although usage doesn’t necessarily imply preference, it is unarguably an increasing tendency and we have to acknowledge the remarkable surge of e-books. Nonetheless, according to the same study by the Pew Research Center, 72% of the book market is still dominated by print. There could be a number of reasons for this: anywhere from availability to gradual adaptation and development, to marketing forces, etc. However, for the purpose of my essay I shall focus on what print-book lovers actually love about books and then relate this to my personal phenomenological experience.

According to the second BISG study I cited for example, students said they preferred print for a number of reasons: a. permanence; b. feel; c. look; and d. ability to be resold. Through many blogs and testimonials I visited, I picked up a few other constants people appreciate in the printed book: smell, lending and gift ability, adding notes, ownership, availability, no significant eyestrain, large format for pictures, a cover, no battery, no software upgrades, etc.

Now, because this is an exercise of phenomenological description, I obviously do not intend, let alone need, to use other testimonials and variables as empirical proof; I merely cited them because they relate to my own experience. I do however note that in Husserl’s phenomenology, there is the possibility of a ‘collective experience’; his “investigations ultimately embrace not only the achievements and correlates of constituting subjectivity, but also those of intersubjectivity, that is, of the ‘we’ rather than solely the ‘I’”. (Behnke, 2011)


The Subject-Object Correlation

The printed book’s noblest quality, the one that connects the observer and the observed is perhaps tangibility. A few synonyms that would help me describe this accurately are palpability, perceptibility, physicality, corporeality and presence. From these, all the other attributes like smell, ownership, permanence, adding notes, look and feel stem out; and that is because of a very understandable reason: the engagement and participation of almost all the physical senses. When you read a hard book, practically all your senses except taste are engaged with the object. Furthermore, because printed books are single, unrepeatable units even if they were mass-produced, over time a copy –your copy– starts developing an array of distinctive features –marks, spots, and scratches– that constitute the ultimate subjective phenomenological correlation. My father’s first edition of Editorial Aguilar’s One Thousand and One Nights translated directly from Arabic into Spanish by Rafael Cansinos Assens, hand sewn, Bible paper, with my grandfather’s inscription on the end paper is as unique as you can get; there is no other copy like it in the world and it is the One Thousand and One Nights that I personally read, sprouting an emotional attachment not only to that particular copy, but the piece in general. In other words, the distinctive array of features from my father’s copy was a vehicle through which a special connection between me and, not only that particular book was formed, but with the One Thousand and One Nights as a work of art.

The printed book’s noblest quality, the one that connects the observer and the observed is perhaps tangibility.

This is impossible with e-books because digital copies are all equal (in the corporeal sense). There is no materiality to them; they are just ephemeral virtual graphics that come and go, are downloaded, uploaded, erased and upgraded. No palpability, no spatial presence, no smell, touch or texture. Even now that you can customize books and personalize them with recorded messages, take notes and even individualize adventures with your child’s name, gender and appearance, they still fail to be there. Permanence is the quality that consolidates the phenomenological attachment; it’s what communicates that a unique relationship between the specific copy and you exists. This relationship may of course be formed with the device that contains digital books because it is corporeal, permanent and tangible, nonetheless given our insatiable thirst for upgrading –from iPad to iPad 2 and from Kindle to Kindle Fire– I see no real permanence in it. Furthermore, because only one device contains all your e-books, attributes like texture and smell for example are the same in every copy, thus eliminating that special, unrepeatable connection with a single copy. This is not to say of course that, in the future, technology won’t solve these problems, in which case other problems may arise. For now however, people don’t relate to digital books as unique objects because in a sense, they aren’t there –they just appear.

To illustrate my case with simple words I’d say that for some reason, which I believe is tangibility, I feel a physical and emotional attachment to my printed copy of Jorge Luis Borges’s Ficciones, sitting there at home in my father’s collection, whereas I don’t feel any connection at all to my Kindle copy of Christopher Hitchens’s Letters to a Young Contrarian (2012). I read the latter on the go, ephemerally, pragmatically, perhaps to solve an urgent necessity; I read the former, however, because my dad gave it to me, because he had read it in college too and it still had his signature. Digital copies just seem so ethereal, so artificial, and even a little anti-aesthetical; they only solve a problem but truly contain no craft.

On a final analysis, it’s worth it to say that these ideas raise some interesting questions, primarily regarding the future of the e-book. Will technology solve issues of permanence and intangibility? Will e-books be designed with material attributes and tangible features? Is it perhaps too soon to tell if e-books will once be nostalgically remembered as precious objects just as we now value the printed book? Time will tell; for now, I don’t think the e-book is a replacement for the printed book but just a simple convenience.



Anton, M. (2012, April 14). Even E-Readers Still Like Printed Books, Survey Finds. LA Times. Retrieved from: Liga

Behnke, E. (2011, August 27).  Husserl’s Phenomenology of Embodiment. Retrieved from: Liga

Rainie, L., Zickuhr K., Purcell, K., Madden, M., & Brenner, J.  (2012, April 4). The Rise of E-Reading. Pew Internet and American Life Project. Retrieved from: Liga

Simon, H. (2012, April 24). More people buying e-books but do they still prefer printed books? Retrieved from: Liga

Student Attitudes Toward Content in Higher Education (2011). Book Industry Study Group. Press Release. Retrieved from: Liga