March 8, 2019

In defense of the paperback


Book sale photographed by University of Scranton and licensed under CC BY 2.0

I come to you today in defense of the beloved paperback book. And no, my relation to a publishing house does not feed any of the bias (okay, maybe a little). To prove that it is a little bit and nothing more, I’ll admit to you, dear reader of this post, that I too abandoned my paperback reading material in hopes of a better experience with the e-reader.

And let’s not jump down my throat over it, okay? I know you’ve walked through Barnes & Nobel many a time and been derailed on your pursuit of paper to play with the Nook display. I have myself, but do you know what we did? We collected ourselves and marched proudly to the designated genre we were searching for and bought that book in its pure and bound form. So, kudos to us.

Kudos to those who do own an e-reader and spend their days ferociously absorbed in them. Because as it turns out, that’s really the only way e-readers are making a difference on literature’s environmental impact. The average adult reads around four to six novels a year (this is excluding all you literature/creative writing majors and anyone involved with those fields beyond academia). In order to really make it count between your e-reader and the planet, you’d have to read over one hundred books on that thing before you upgrade it. Even at one hundred books read, you’re producing about the same effect as one hundred printed books has on the planet.

And that sucks, right? You must be in disbelief. You don’t believe me. But, when you break it down, a lot more goes into getting that number than one might find at first glance.

Manufacturing is probably the biggest things to consider here. To produce an e-reader (Kindle, Nook, whatever) you’re using up 100 kilowatts hours of fossil fuel energy and emitting 65 pounds of carbon dioxide.

For the good ol’ printed book, we’re looking at 2 kilowatt hours of fossil fuels and 7.5 kilos of carbon dioxide emitted. That’s a pretty big gap there.

Materials are another source of environmental contention. While an e-reader uses 33 lb. of minerals, one book made of recycled paper uses .66 lb. While physical books can be made from recycled materials, e-readers often can’t. Many of the minerals used to make them come from war torn areas or are considered “conflict materials” because of where they come from (e.g. the Congo).

This is only a precursor to the 79 gallons of water that e-readers send back into landfills post-production while books produce a whopping 2 gallons put back.

And you might still be ready to attack me for writing such an article because you haven’t upgraded your kindle since they came out with the very first one! That’s great, truly. But, that’s not the case for most in this consumer driven economy. E-readers almost died at birth. They were quickly replaced by tablets that can do oodles of other things and offer the reading material of your choice. But those devices wreak even more havoc on our planet. So maybe you didn’t upgrade, but you may still be contributing to the damage with extra electronic toys.

I didn’t come here to shame those riding the e-reader wave. I just wanted to support the paper choice and lay out some facts for everyone interested. I am here, however, to tell you what you can do to help.

  1. Use that Kindle until you can’t use it anymore!
  2. Buy used paperbacks
  3. Borrow books from your friends
  4. Join your local library! (YES, they do still exist and both your grandmother and I would be oh-so-proud of you.)

I hope this helped assuage any paperback owner’s guilt and maybe inform the rest of you a little more when making your next choice.



Finola McDonald is an intern at Melville House.