One Saturday last November, I stepped into the place I missed going to the most during quarantine — my local public library. The familiar shelves made me smile behind my mask. The building looked mostly the same as I remembered it more than a year and a half earlier.
As a child, the library was my favorite place. My mom took me every weekend and I loved exploring the new books arranged in alphabetical order and according to their respective genres.
There was so much to find, borrow, and read. When I was around 7, I once borrowed 50 books and didn’t understand why I could not borrow more. I loved the “Geronimo Stilton” series, “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” from the Chronicles of Narnia series, and “Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library,” just to name a few.
Now that I am older, I go to the library without an adult and I take my 12-year-old brother along. He likes the library, too. He particularly likes to read books that are part of a series. He also enjoys the “Did You Know?” books, he says, because “they have interesting facts and funny graphics.” He doesn’t think the “Did You Know?” graphics are as vivid in digital formats. “They don’t pop as much,” he says.
Now back in the library as a teen, I felt warm at the sight of parents reading to their toddlers. In the children’s section, there are comfy couches in colors like green and purple that form a small circular shape where children can plop down and begin reading (like I used to). The check-out area is spacious, with newly arrived books on low shelves directly across from the check-out computers. I was happy to see that Ms. H, the kind, bespectacled older woman in charge of the children’s section from my youth was still there, recommending stories to curious kids. I also saw myself in the young children waiting at the front desk with piles of books to check out.
As these thoughts and memories surfaced, I entered the youth section of the library and began searching for an interesting novel. I came across John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” and immediately swelled with emotion. Two years earlier, during my freshman English class, I had read the PDF version during remote learning. As my class finished discussing the ending of the story, I turned off my Zoom camera because I was sobbing as I read the passages describing Lennie’s fate.
I wanted to shout while waving my book, “Look, sir! I still read library books! And I certainly won’t allow this library to turn into a café!”
Though I had seen the author’s name in the online version, it was different to feel the thin novel in my hand with “John Steinbeck” printed on the cover. As my fingertips traced the embossed outline of the author’s name, the slight bumps of the lettering inexplicably made me feel a more intimate connection with the author.
The novel was also featherlight and around the size of my handspan, evoking a familiar sense of disappointment that I often feel when I hold a thin book: This story will end too soon, and I don’t want it to end so fast.
I grabbed a chair to reread the ending when an elderly man walked into the library and spoke to a lady, perhaps his wife or a friend. His words caused me to pry my eyes from Steinbeck’s writing. The gentleman said, “Where do you see a child reading these days? This library will soon turn into a café. No one is reading hard-copy books. Everyone is on devices.”
Hearing this, I wanted to shout while waving my book, “Look, sir! I still read library books! And I certainly won’t allow this library to turn into a café!” But those words died in my throat.
For the few hours that remained until the library closed, I thought about what the man said. I wondered: How many people had he encountered reading printed books? Around me, teenagers had earbuds in their ears, talking to friends or staring at a laptop. The man was right; the atmosphere resembled that of a Starbucks or a cybercafé, only with bookshelves around. When I looked out the library window, I saw a child in a baby carriage, gleefully watching an entertaining counting lesson on his mother’s cellphone.
After the library closed, I went home to do some research. It was not a shock to learn that young people spend more time on digital media than on what is known as legacy media: printed books, magazines, and newspapers. According to a 2019 study in Psychology of Popular Media Culture, in the late 1970s, 60% of 12th graders said they read a book or magazine almost every day; by 2016, only 16% did.
But reading online — clicking “next,” rather than turning the page — feels robotic to me. It often feels like I don’t appreciate the author’s writing enough when I read digital files. But when I flip through a book, it’s like I’m cradling the essence of the characters. I can visualize the plot better, as I can play the scenes of each moment in my head with more accuracy and imagination. Some printed books have a special smell that makes the novel feel special to me. It’s hard to describe but I’m sure I’m not the only one who thinks this.
I know I cannot convince every teen to switch from digital to print, but maybe writing about the difference will get some of them to think about it.
A version of this essay was originally published by Youth Communication.
Winnie Lin is a sophomore at Francis Lewis High School advocating for more traditional readers in today’s technologically infused society. As an avid reader, passionate history informationist, unrelenting environmental activist, and proud Chinese American born in Manhattan and raised in Queens, it is not unusual to see her devouring piles of books, finding videos on the Mongol Empire, deeply conversing with trees, observing the behavior of squirrels, and honing my language skills in French and Chinese.