Boston magazine ran a fun article in their September 2013 issue called “Books on the T” (you can see the online version here). The article features pictures of train-riding readers and the captions include the titles of their books.

Books on the T

How often do we want to go up to people with books and ask what they’re reading? (I’m sure it’s not just me!) I enjoyed the article but something started to nag at me. Did it hit you, too?

Every person in the photographs is reading a paper book.

This struck me as odd because when I’m riding on the T, I see a lot of people reading on ereaders and smartphones. So this photo essay didn’t ring true. “What does this mean?” I wondered. Why does the depiction of books in print, online, and in moves seem strongly pro-print? Is there a hidden message here? The magazine has been on my desk and turned to this page for three whole months and I’ve mulled these questions over every day that I’m in the office.

And then today I finally thought, why not just ask the journalist?

Hi S. I.,

As a voracious reader and a publishing professional, I loved your article The Books People Read on the MBTA.

As a print book designer turned ebook developer, I was intrigued by the photos of people in the article only reading paper books. This is something I’ve mulled over and I finally thought, why not ask you? Would you consider, if you did this article on a regular basis, including pictures of people reading ebooks on their ereaders or smart phones?

Many people read ebooks and yet when people in the media are represented reading books, it’s often paper books that are depicted. Even in movies – when was the last time we’ve seen anyone depicted in a movie reading a magazine or book on a device? I just find this to be a fascinating issue because I think it underscores the beloved icon that the paper book has become. We use ebooks but love paper books?

Anyways, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this if you’d like to share them.


And the journalist responded quickly and graciously.

We did take pictures of people reading e-readers. Our art director happened to deem these pictures not among the best. I love e-readers, personally, and can’t remember the last time I bought a paper book, but there you have it. If I were ever to do this again, I would definitely include books in both analog and digital forms.

As to your larger question, why printed books remain iconic in media: A physical book conveys more information at a distance or at a glance. For example, you can usually see: how expensive the book was (marbled edges? leather bound?); its age (discolored paper, cracked bindings); whether it’s been read many times or just a few times (dog ears, margin notes); how thick the book is in comparison to the size of the text; whether it’s “popular” fiction, genre, or literary fiction (“supermarket” paperback versus TPB versus hardcover); how far along the reader is in the narrative. So I think in addition to its iconic status as an object, it’s likely that props people choose printed books because of how much can be implied about the reader by the specific book. Of course, you can also imply something about a person by seeing that they’re using an e-reader!

Thanks for writing … and reading.

The journalist allowed me to share our conversation with you and we welcome your thoughts on this matter.

  • Is it about time that ereaders/ebooks be depicted as iconic as print books in popular culture?
  • Does the fact a reader chooses digital versus paper affect your view of that reader?
  • Do you prefer digital over paper when traveling (even short) distances?
  • Why do I over-think?

…ah, well, I guess that last one is for me to figure out. Meanwhile, I’m putting the magazine back on my shelf. Mystery solved!