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“Me—I Need Paper”

Analysis of Novel Readers’ Difficult and Unequal Adoption of the Digital Format
« Moi, il me faut du papier. » Analyse d’une difficile et inégale conversion des lecteurs et lectrices de romans au numérique
«A mí me hace falta el papel.» Análisis de una conversión difícil y desigual de lectores y lectoras de novelas a formato digital
Emmanuelle Guittet
Traduction de Daniela Ginsburg
Cet article est une traduction de :
« Moi, il me faut du papier » [fr]


L’article interroge conjointement, chez les lecteur·rice·s de romans, les pratiques effectives de lecture numérique et les représentations qui y sont associées, en les mettant en lien avec leur « carrière » de lecteur·rice·s. Il s’appuie sur une enquête qualitative par entretiens (trente-six) menés avec des lecteurs et lectrices de romans. Il présente d’abord les représentations positives associées à la lecture sur liseuse, dont la praticité potentielle est appréciée. Il analyse ensuite les freins au développement de la lecture numérique que peuvent constituer l’attachement à la lecture sur papier, le besoin de posséder et le désir d’exposer les livres. Enfin, l’article étudie les pratiques effectives de lecture sur liseuse et met au jour les déterminismes sociaux expliquant que la structure des pratiques de lecture ne soit pas renouvelée par le recours au numérique, et donc que l’ensemble du lectorat ne soit pas concerné par ces nouvelles pratiques de lecture.

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Fig. 1. Jeune fille au livre, Maurice Estève (1904-2001)

Fig. 1. Jeune fille au livre, Maurice Estève (1904-2001)

© Ville de Bourges, Adagp

1Digital reading, which has been described as the third book revolution, has attracted researchers’ attention to the materiality of books (Chartier & Cavallo 2003). Previously, the “reign of paper” made it difficult to represent books as material objects (Melot 2014), in spite of the fact that the history of books has been shaped by technological developments (Barbier 2013). The electronic book, or e-book—the most recent of these innovations—implies a break with traditional modalities of reading, since on the one hand it changes the paratextual elements with which readers are familiar (Genette 1997), and on the other, it creates a new type of interaction between readers and books via a screen (Van Cuyck & Bélisle 2004).

2E-books emerged in a particular context marked by three phenomena: first, a general loss of interest in reading—Olivier Donnat explains that each generation’s degree of engagement with reading decreases in comparison with the previous one; second, the devaluing of literary and artistic forms, which causes the symbolic value of books to diminish (Lahire 2011) in favour of—and this is the third phenomenon—new audiovisual and digital practices (Donnat 2009). The rise of these new practices among the leisure activities of the French explains the hopes that were pinned to the development of digital reading, situated as it is at the crossroads of the distinctive cultural practice of reading literature and digital practices. The enthusiastic discourse that surrounded e-books assumed that they would be the tool that could bring people—especially the young, who in principle are more tech-savvy than their elders—back to reading.

3The available data indicate a prevalence of paper books over digital: 68% of readers read exclusively on paper, while just 1% read only digitally (Vincent Gérard & Poncet, for Ipsos/CNL 2019). In spite of the hopes and anxieties that accompanied the development of digital books (Bélisle 2004), they do not seem to have inspired much enthusiasm among readers.

4Digital reading varies widely depending on the editorial sector in question with the technical/scientific sector being the most developed in terms of production, commercialization, and usage of the digital format (Robin 2016). Novel reading, the focus of this article, is a particularly interesting angle from which to analyse the reception of e-books. In fact, according to the same study, 74% of all books read are novels, and novels are also most likely to be read in entirety, in contrast with how-to books, in particular (Ipsos/CNL 2019). Literature represents a significant share of the book market: it accounted for 24% of all books sold in 2016-2017 according to data compiled by the French Ministry of Culture’s Book Observatory (Observatoire de l’économie du livre 2018). Moreover, the shift from paper to digital format scarcely alters the content of literature, which is not the case with textbooks, for example (Gossin 2004)—and so we might imagine that reading novels digitally would be less disorienting to those hesitant about digital reading than reading content from other sectors. Finally, since reading literature has such strong legitimacy as a cultural practice, novels might be more likely than other types of publication to allow for a different relationship to the materiality of books.

5The reception of literary works cannot be separated from their medium. In order to reach a more nuanced understanding of reading practices, we must therefore begin by focusing on the mechanisms that determine whether a reader will accept or reject digital reading. As Roger Chartier and Guglielmo Cavallo remind us, books are “handled differently by flesh and blood readers whose reading habits vary across time, place, and social milieu” (2003). Thus, following in the footsteps of Mauger, Poliak, Pudal (2010), I propose approaching digital reading from the perspective of actual practices, giving weight to readers’ trajectories, the place digital reading has in their representations of books, and the way it fits into their reading practice as a whole.

  • 1 In this article, “digital reading” refers to reading on an e-reader, since this is the practice tha (...)

6The goal of this article is to examine and connect readers’ representations of digital reading1 and their actual practices so as to understand, in particular, why digital reading has been slow to develop among French readers of novels, in contrast to other countries and to other types of publication.

  • 2 These are the categories used by the French National Institute of Statistics and Surveys (INSEE): c (...)

The data on which this article are based were gathered as part of my doctoral research on novel reading and practices surrounding book recommendations. While that research was not specifically structured around the question of digital reading, my study of novel reading practices in general gave me insight into the representations associated with digital reading as well as the actual practices that go along with these representations.
The readers interviewed are aged between eighteen and sixty-five and live in Paris or the nearby surrounding areas. They had read at least one novel over the previous twelve months and were employed (readers who do not work were not included in the study due to their increased free time, which might affect their strategies for choosing books). To reach these readers, four hundred fifty-seven questionnaires were distributed via various channels: in front of bookshops and libraries (in the thirteenth and fifth
arrondissements of Paris); within my personal social network, where they were passed around in paper and online formats via a snowball effect (and where the population reached was particularly heterogeneous); at the Paris Salon du Livre; as well as on online forums and readers’ blogs. In terms of the social make-up of the readers in the sample, there is a predominance of executives and knowledge professionals (42%) over other categories (12% belong to mid-level professions, 24% are employees, 19% are students, and less than 2% are labourers or belong to the categories of craftspeople, merchants, or business leaders)2. This predominance can be explained by the fact that executives and knowledge professionals are present in great number in Paris (where, according to the French National Institute of Statistics and Surveys, INSEE, data from 2008, they represent 27.1% of the population—making them the largest socio-professional group in Paris), and by the fact that the social distribution of reading practices favours this group. In keeping with that pattern, 44% of readers in the sample group have five or more years of higher education (bac+5), 37% have a BA (licence), and 14% have a high school degree (baccalauréat; hereafter abbreviated as bac). More women (68%) than men were part of the study; this fits with existing data on the feminization of reading in general and of novel reading in particular (Donnat 2009). Finally, the survey focused on all readers of novels, regardless of how frequently or rarely they read: frequent readers (more than twenty novels per year), average readers (between ten and nineteen per year), and infrequent readers (between one and nine per year) were all represented. These are the categories of reader used in studies of French cultural practices conducted by the Ministry of Culture’s Department of Studies, Future Planning, and Statistics (DEPS).
In a second phase, thirty-six semi-structured interviews were conducted by recruiting participants from among the survey respondents and attempting to replicate their distribution in terms of gender, socio-professional category, and frequency of reading. These interviews were the primary source of the information presented in this article.

1. Initial and Relatively Widespread Attraction to the Practicality of Digital Reading

7First, I would like to focus on what the readers in my sample group perceived as the attractions of the digital format, since these representations condition their adoption of digital reading. Whether or not they had either actual or intentional digital reading practices, the vast majority of readers surveyed shared certain beliefs about the benefits—in particular, the practical benefits—of digital reading. In fact, even readers who were opposed to digital reading recognized the potential advantages of a practice of which they were otherwise critical.

Me, I need paper, because we’re already in front of a screen all day long, and because a book, you can take it anywhere, it doesn’t need batteries, it doesn’t need anything. It doesn’t make your eyes tired… [E-reading]—that doesn’t attract me at all. But it’s true that if you bring a book somewhere and you don’t like it, well, too bad. Whereas with the system of e-readers, I imagine you can just download another one. It’s the practical side of things that makes it good, and yeah, books are really heavy, they’re super heavy but boy, are they beautiful!(Pascale, F, 58 years old, employee, secretary, certificate of technical education (BEP), father builder, mother housewife, infrequent reader.)

8A number of characteristics considered useful and practical were frequently mentioned by study participants on the subject of e-readers, whether they used them or not. First and foremost, the issue of weight and the space taken up by books in the home or during commutes came up very often, especially among frequent readers, who seemed most concerned by this material problem. We see from Pascale’s words that the issue of weight, even though it is not enough to lead to an actual practice of e-reading, is an integral part of e-readers’ positive image, as is the possibility of carrying multiple books at once and thus being able to switch from one to another with ease. Here, the e-reader appears as a solution to the uncertainty associated with symbolic goods (Karpik 2007), since a text judged to be bad can easily be exchanged for another.

9We also observe seasonality in the usage of e-readers, since vacation times are associated with transporting a greater number of books. Although the risks of damaging an e-reader (with sand or water for example), losing it, or having it stolen were frequently mentioned, the attraction of being able to carry more books remained preponderant in readers’ discourse.

  • 3 41% of buyers are between 18 and 29 years old; 34.3% are between 30 and 49 years old.

10The digital revolution has changed the way books are acquired, including paper books. The appearance of new actors—online bookstores, most of which are actually online sales platforms—has created new competition for the traditional book market. According to Vincent Chabault, online book buyers are 60.3% women, and mostly young3, and more than 27% live in Paris (which might seem paradoxical given the high concentration of bookshops and other purveyors of cultural goods in Paris, but can be explained by the fact that Parisians have greater educational capital and consume more cultural goods than the rest of the population). Three socio-professional categories are over-represented: executives and knowledge professionals; mid-level professionals; and students (in other words, the groups with the most educational capital) (Chabault 2013). They are mostly city-dwelling, employed college graduates living in or near Paris and other major cities in France. Chabault also points to the reasons why readers choose to procure books online: the ability to access or re-access the book market (if they are located in geographically remote areas); access to a comprehensive inventory, including foreign works; convenience (not having to go anywhere, saving time); the ability to practise economically rational behaviour (finding the best prices), and finally, access to personalized services (for example, gift wrapping). We can observe that what distinguishes buying books online from other forms of acquiring them is the promise that readers will be freed from the constraints that otherwise limit book-buying: being restricted to specific hours of purchase, having to travel, difficulty in finding the book they are looking for, etc. Whether or not this promise is fulfilled, it allows us to understand why, to the readers in my sample, online buying appeared to be most free from limitations, even though they had a multitude of options for purchasing books available to them in Paris, as well as numerous tools to help find books of their choice, whether in independent bookstores or in the major chains selling cultural products: 41% of respondents stated that they buy books (in any format) online. Although these data do not refer specifically to digital books, these changes in the book market affect digital books in particular, since they are downloaded online.

11In addition, buying books online frees readers from the potentially scornful eyes of bookstore employees and other customers, who may or may not in fact judge them with contempt. This feature of online buying is mostly mentioned by readers of “genre fiction” in explaining why they avoid bookstores and other major vendors of cultural products:

  • 4 A collection of historical romance novels published by J’ai lu.
  • 5 FNAC is a French superstore that sells all kinds of cultural goods, comparable to Barnes and Noble (...)

On Amazon, it’s really easy, you have access to a catalogue that’s just huge… Shipping is only 1 centime because of that idiotic law they passed, and the problem is when you go to a bookstore, especially when I used to read urban fantasy, in general people already are looking at you like what the heck is that?, and then if you happen to go to a bookstore that’s even a little bit elitist it’s like oh, that’s not a real book. I remember one time I asked for Aventure et passions4, which, yeah, is sold in supermarkets, and in the beginning, I didn’t know, and I asked a salesperson at FNAC5 and he said No, here we sell real books.And for me, that kind of stupid elitism… Because yeah, to a lot of people, if you show them that kind of book, they don’t consider that reading. And that gets on my nerves because, I’m sorry, there’s no kind of reading that’s better than another kind, and on Amazon you don’t have to deal with that kind of judgment since you’re on a website. You can buy whenever you want, even at 11 at night, if you want a book, well, Amazon is open and there’s no one looking at you at the cash register like Ohh, that’s what you’re buying, hmm.’” (Émilie, F, 31 years old, employee, computer technician, BA in archaeology, father business executive, mother special education teacher, frequent reader.)

  • 6 The same argument was used for paper and for digital books.

12Although this is not the most common position held by the readers I studied—most of them demonstrate cultural goodwill, including when their reading is not considered legitimate (Bourdieu 1984)—this interview extract sheds light on the symbolic violence that readers of “genre fiction” might experience when purchasing books, and points to other types of motivation that might push book buyers into the digital realm6. Online buying allows for a feeling of anonymity (which is somewhat paradoxical given all the data retail websites collect on their customers), and the absence of interactions with booksellers means readers can avoid being judged for their choice of reading material. Although Émilie’s case is unusual among the sample group in terms of the intensity of the symbolic violence she describes, attitudes of opposition to book recommendations and to book professionals were common, and many readers mentioned that they refuse to go to bookstores. We may hypothesize that this is the case for many readers who are undoubtedly difficult to include in studies such as the present one, precisely because they operate outside traditional book networks. The ability to avoid the eyes of others when purchasing books overlaps with the ability to read in public spaces without anyone knowing what one is reading—recalling the older practice of hiding a book under a plain or different jacket.

13The fact that works that have entered the public domain can now be accessed for free constitutes another point of attraction to digital reading mentioned by multiple respondents. Indeed, the ability to download, free of charge, a plethora of classic works of both French and foreign literature has profoundly altered a market ordinarily governed by the fixed book price law. Whether or not the readers in my study downloaded such works, the ability to do so represented an incontestable argument in favour of digital reading.

14For readers of foreign or hard-to-find books, e-readers are also seen as advantageous because they make it possible to access books that would otherwise be difficult to acquire—and one does not have to wait for them to be delivered. Many respondents mentioned the immediacy of access provided by e-readers as one of the principle benefits of the medium.

15Finally, while many respondents mentioned not liking the fact that they could not lend out their digital books, others (certainly more tech-savvy readers) described various ways of exchanging digital files (either by email or by connecting their device to other devices, something that Amazon’s Kindle, for example, allows).

16Digital technology enriches reading with new possibilities, of which the readers I studied were aware to varying degrees, although the majority had positive representations of the practicality of e-readers. I found a very positive discourse on digital reading within my sample group, as was the case for Gaudric, Mauger and Zunigo (2016), who found that readers have positive representations associated with the “immediacy of access to cultural goods,” the space saved by cultural de-materialization, and the ability of e-readers to store many works without adding weight.

2. Forms of Attachment to the Book-Object

17Nevertheless, in spite of this unanimous agreement as to the practicality of e-readers, there are a number of obstacles that limit the development of digital reading among readers of novels.

2.1. A Sensory Attachment to Reading on Paper

18In comparison with the audience for other media, book readers display a particular attachment to the object in question, something that constantly surfaces in their words. This is the result of the sacralization of a practice spilling over onto the medium that supports it (and vice versa), and among many readers—readers who are quite different in other respects—we observe very enthusiastic accounts of reading on paper. Respondents spontaneously and frequently mention books as objects first and foremost, and then as objects that give rise to a specific experience. In doing so, they evoke the five senses: sight, of course—the appearance of a beautiful object—but also smell (many readers pointed to the smell of books as proof of the superiority of reading on paper over digital reading), hearing (the sound of the pages turning), and touch (the feeling of the pages and the differences between various qualities of paper). The senses are particularly foregrounded when readers defend paper books, often with passion and virulence. While sight and touch make it possible to draw distinctions between various books on offer (between different publishing houses, different covers, formats, etc.), smell and hearing seem to be associated with sensations common to all reading experiences, and with sites such as libraries and bookstores. During interviews, the mention of all these smells and sounds was accompanied by sighs of ecstasy—ultimately, definitively marking reading on paper as a sensory practice.

I don’t want to lose paper books! I am absolutely against [digital reading], I definitely see the attraction, but the object, you know… a lot of people around me have [e-readers] but you… I think you lose something that is part of the whole experience of reading a book, the relationship to the page, the sound, the rustling, and a kind of gesture and attention that you have to have in relation to the book. It’s funny because when I read books, I’m careful, they usually stay… I try to keep them as immaculate as when I got them, you know. My girlfriend’s books, they’re all worn, she destroys books. But me, you know, I try to be careful and I think that keeping books in good shape, that’s part of how I read, part of my experience of reading.(Alexandre, M, 28 years old, executive, strategy consultant, bac+5, father school principal, mother special education teacher, frequent reader.)

19Here, Alexandre evokes the totality of the sensory experience of reading and connects it to the specific status that books and reading have for him. The care with which he treats his books, and the importance he gives to keeping them “immaculate” also demonstrate a sacred relationship to books, which, although their materiality is foregrounded, are far from being mere objects.

The experience of reading… That’s why I can’t read on e-readers. I have a lot of trouble with that, it’s because there is… There’s really an experience between a book and a reader, it’s a physical experience, it’s not just words on paper and… It’s really hard to explain. It’s true that once you put it in words, it seems really bizarre. You’d think I had a book fetish, but it’s true that [reading on an e-reader] is really not the same. So I understand why people don’t like lending books, because they don’t want other people to read them, they don’t want them to be in other people’s hands, even if those people are going to take care of them. It’s both something you want to share—the text—but the copy itself, that’s more personal.” (Stéphane, M, executive, researcher, doctorate, father in the military, mother housewife, frequent reader.)

20Stéphane’s words show how the physical experience of reading on paper leads to an intimate relationship between a book and its reader. This intimacy is often complemented by a need to possess books, to lend them out, and to display them in one’s home.

2.2. The Need to Possess Books

21Owning books is one of the strongest signs of attachment to books as objects. In fact, when the readers in my study spoke of books, they referred to them first as material objects, as “objectified cultural objects” (Bourdieu 1979). The desire to possess books was front and centre for the vast majority of respondents of all types, and in addition to posing an obstacle to practices of digital reading, it was manifested in particular in a refusal to take books out from libraries or to lend them. In her study of bedside books, Clara Lévy discusses the transfer that occurs between the “internal qualities of a literary work” and its “material qualities,” which, for readers of bedside books, justifies owning and remaining close to the book-object (Lévy 2015).

22The “need” to own books—that is how the study participants themselves phrased it—thus affects how books are acquired. The respondents did not see having a digital file on their computer or e-reader as owning a book, and their reasons for being reluctant to lend out their books were the same as those that ruled out digital reading.

23Joëlle Bahloul has discussed the issue of book lending in her study on infrequent readers, writing that some readers would buy their own copy of a book after having read a borrowed copy—the beloved book had to “appear as part of their own personal and personalized stock of printed matter, arranged as a testament to various parts of their lives” (Bahloul 1988). Indeed, some readers in my study described borrowing books and then purchasing them:

When I like a book a lot, I need to own it. So sometimes someone lends me a book and then I buy it, because I think it’s so good I need to keep it… And… I mean… you can lend me a book, and I’ll give it back.(Sabine, F, 36 years old, executive, marketing and sales director, bac+5, frequent reader, father mechanic, mother factory worker.)

24Here we find all the ambivalence surrounding goods of uncertain quality (Karpik 2007): to ascertain their quality, one must “consume” them—in this case, read them. While of course one may acquire a book that one has already read, any subsequent experience of reading it will be merely a re-reading—and I found that the practice of re-reading novels was uncommon among respondents. Thus, it is often a matter of buying a book that one has already read purely in order to possess it, or, in the case of those readers for whom reading is strongly anchored in sociability, to circulate it among one’s network of friends and family. It is thus possible to reconcile borrowing and owning books: readers discover books by borrowing them and build their personal libraries by buying them afterwards. Nevertheless, many readers—those most attached to book-objects—find both borrowing books and downloading digital ones inconceivable. Attachment not only to paper books in general but to a specific, unique copy—a paradoxical attachment in the context of mass production (Benjamin 1935)—may lead some readers, like the one cited above, to buy a new copy of a book to give back instead of the one they had borrowed, in order to be able to keep the copy they had read. These behaviours, which readers often described with humour and self-deprecation, reveal a very strong attachment to the object that serves as the basis for a reading experience.

25Nevertheless, we observe some disparities between readers in terms of their need to own the books they have read. While books in general have a status that distinguishes them from other recreational objects, and while most readers invoke their sacredness more or less directly, it is striking that relations to the book-object vary, in particular depending on a reader’s social position: not all readers go so far as to buy books they have already read, or go to great lengths to avoid having to give a book back. Therefore, we must investigate the conditions that determine relations to the book-object.

26While all readers seem attached to owning books—the recent Ipsos survey for the Centre National du Livre indicates that 72% of the readers studied “prefer to read books that belong to them” (Ipsos/CNL 2019)—disparities exist between readers as a function of their social positions and origins.

27Indeed, attachment to books as objects and to owning them seems to vary depending on factors such as readers’ social position or social mobility. I am not claiming that readers who belong to or come from the upper classes are not attached to books as objects, since the majority of all readers are attached to the materiality of books and ascribe to them a particular status: other objects with similar functions (televisions, magazines, digital devices, etc.) are frequently considered less beautiful, less important, less worthy of being owned, and are either less prominent or entirely ignored in respondents’ discourse.

28However, we do observe that the only respondents who indicated relative detachment from books as objects were those who came from or belong to the upper classes and have significant cultural capital (in particular, educational capital—all of them had five or more years of higher education [bac+5]).

I often have a habit of, when I like a book, I’ll tell people about it, because when I know what people read, I also know their taste, sometimes I’ll lend or even give them books. I give my books away a lot actually.(Thibaut, M, 34 years old, employee [but formerly executive], security officer [but previously worked in finance], bac+5, average reader, father head of business, mother housewife.)

29Here we may note in Thibaut’s words a kind of nonchalance towards owning books, which does not imply a lack of desire for nice editions of books. However, it does not seem particularly important to him to own the books he has read or to display them in his home. It is not a problem for him if his books are passed around, even if they never come back to him—on the contrary, the circulation of books is integral to how he envisions them. For this type of reader, who has benefited from primary socialization highly favourable to reading novels, the distinction between the moment of reading and the copy of the book used is often pronounced: the medium is not seen as sacred and ultimately is of no great importance.

30The opposite is true of readers from working-class backgrounds (whether or not they have experienced social mobility), who often come from families where books and reading are not common: with these readers, we observe closer relations to the book-object, and books are evoked or displayed with pride. One explanation for this may lie in a desire to preserve a trace of what is usually a one-time experience (since in general books are read only once), similar to attending a live event. Owning a book—that is, the material medium of a literary work—makes it possible to preserve a tangible trace of the experience, as well as to maintain the possibility of picking it up again one day if the fancy strikes; to flip through it or even read it again (although this is rarely done, according to respondents). Olivier Vanhée and Christine Détrez allow us to deepen this analysis when they discuss manga readers’ practice of consulting online scanned copies or watching anime versions before purchasing a manga: “Buying a manga allows one to select it and choose it, in particular, in order to re-read it. Here, the importance of possession and collecting comes into play” (Vanhée & Détrez 2013). While mangas, given their visual aspect and the increased reading speed they allow, perhaps lend themselves more to re-reading, the practice of looking over a work before buying it may also be something readers of novels do. Buying a printed book after having borrowed or read it digitally amounts to selecting it from among the mass of other books available and, in this way, constituting oneself as a reader capable of separating the wheat from the chaff and creating a personal library of value.

So now, I have a collection that I’ve had, since I started buying—when I was fifteen—the works of Zola. Those books have stayed with me. Zola, he was my first novelist, I have his complete works on Bible paper, and those, I won’t be letting go of those. I started out with paperback copies, I read them kind of any old way, but I really liked them, so when I had the chance to buy this collection, I did. I bought them on credit and I went for it. They’re in great condition, I’ve scarcely read them. Sometimes, I had the paperback versions, and it’s true that I haven’t always read these copies, so as not to ruin them, and you know, it’s stupid, but I wanted to have them anyway.
– Why was it important to have them anyway?
Well, because for me, Zola, his work deserves more than paperbacks, I wanted to have a nice collection. First of all, I don’t like paperbacks, they have a commercial aspect. Everyone who loves to read dreams of having a great library, you know.(Pascale, F, 58 years old, employee, secretary, father builder, mother housewife, infrequent reader.)

31Here, Pascale adds to the need to own a book she has already read the need to own a high-quality copy of it—adopting the perspective of a collector—even if this means re-reading a book in paperback in order to keep the nicer copy in good condition. Re-reading a book, preserving the trace of a reading experience, selecting from among all that is available that which is worth owning—and thus showing that one is an experienced or competent reader—these are all arguments in favour of owning books. Nevertheless, among readers who come from or belong to the working class, buying books also manifests the desire to physically appropriate a book, the need to have a copy of one’s own. In addition, owning and displaying books in one’s home serves as proof of reading as an everyday practice and of the time spent on reading; books are signs of the path taken, in particular when the practice of reading was not transmitted by one’s family. What better object than a book, endowed with “the greatest distinctive power,” to testify to the quality of its owner, especially when the owner has experienced upward social mobility, and displays the “cult of autodidactic effort” (Bourdieu 1984: 281 & 351). We may hypothesize that the desire to own books is part of a conscious or unconscious quest to furnish proof of a real practice that has resulted from an effort. We also find this need to show proof of a practice among students in advanced literature classes who seek to display their adoption of a certain curriculum and/or mode of reading (Maridet 2016). In short, those respondents who had to fight to develop a reading practice and who were only belatedly socialized into reading (whether as a professional or recreational practice) are more likely to consider books objects with a particular status, that require special care and are to be displayed—all the more so since, in comparison with intellectual or bourgeois readers, it is harder for them to find a symbolic return on their investment in books in the conversations they have about them (Bourdieu 1984: chapter 5), and thus they are more likely to turn to the ostentation of a high-quality edition or a nice personal library.

2.3. A Personal Library Meant to be Seen

32Those readers who are attached to the materiality of books—and who in fact have the most reservations about reading digitally—took time and pleasure during our interviews to describe their libraries: the books they have and how they are organized (or how their systems of organization evolved). These readers seem to take great pleasure in having their own libraries and in choosing how to organize them. Once again, these were the readers from my sample who did not inherit the taste for or practice of reading from their families, and who, most often, do not share their personal library (whether or not they live alone; if they live with someone, in most cases their spouse does not read or is only marginally invested in the world of books). Here, books—through their specific materiality, their organization, and their showcasing—embody a practice experienced as distinct from and superior to other pastimes, a practice that requires or required an effort to undertake and continue. For those readers whose taste for reading is the most recent, the effort and pleasure of developing a personal library is part of the pleasure of their discovery of reading. For those who are more advanced in their practice of reading, and who have developed logics of cultivation in other areas, their personal library embodies a trace of this past effort and the path they have taken.

33Élodie, (F, 24 years old, mid-level professional, nurse, bac+3, father head of a small business, mother family assistant, infrequent reader), who has been a reader for less than two years, described her gradual encounter with books and the joy it gives her to have them in her home: the books she is going to read (she always has two or three lined up), but above all those she has already read. For the most part, she is surrounded by non-readers, and when they ask her why she does not sell her books in order to buy the next ones that she wants to read, she answers, “Maybe it’s a bit strange,” but that she prefers to keep them. We find in her words the desire to see books as enduring over the long term, despite the fleeting, (in principle) one-time, nature of the reading experience. What emerges from this type of discourse on owning and displaying books is their status as objects, something readers do not necessarily know how to describe, but which they agree sets them apart from the mediums of other recreational activities and practices. Élodie is the perfect example of the kind of infrequent reader described by Joëlle Bahloul: as her reading activity has increased, she has acquired “a personal library, prominently displayed in the living room” (Bahloul 1988). She owns fewer than twenty books, for she is too recent a reader to have accumulated (or read) more; nevertheless, she declares that she takes great care with them, and seems quite attached to them. Her identity as a reader seems to be at stake in owning books, and the importance she gives to them can be observed in particular when she says, referring to the books on display in the centre of her living room: “Those are the books I’ve read, so I want them to be there, that’s just how it is.”

34Stéphane (M, 32 years old, executive, researcher, PhD, father in the military, mother housewife, frequent reader) is, in contrast to Élodie, an experienced reader. Aged 32, he spent ten years “catching up”: as a child, he did not develop a taste for reading, and grew up in a non-reading environment, with the exception of his mother, whose reading would not be considered legitimate. However, he was influenced by various encounters during his high school years, in particular by a girlfriend and her family, who had a strong effect on his reading “career” (Darmon 2008; Mauger, Poliak, Pudal 2010). He then developed a taste for “good books” (in his words), along with a certain contempt for what he calls “airport novels.” Nowadays he is particularly interested in the classics and in prize-winning books, and says he reads various genres—but in fact the books he reads all fall into the category of literature considered highly legitimate (classical works, contemporary literature that has won prizes or critical acclaim). While at first glance Stéphane’s reading practice may seem to stem from a culture of erudition and legitimacy, nevertheless we may observe traces of upward social mobility (he is a researcher with a doctorate and his partner is an executive in the cultural domain), and this extends to his personal library:

I have an excellent bookcase and I’m very proud of it because I built it myself, it’s the first thing I did when I moved in here. You accumulate a lot of books and when you move it’s always a hassle to find room for all those books, and making space for them is often hard. I gave a lot away, I left a lot behind, and I wanted a big library, with lots of room. Well, I built a giant bookcase, it takes up an entire wall, but the problem is that it was full immediately. (Stéphane, M, 32 years old, executive, researcher, PhD, father in the military, mother housewife, frequent reader.)

35The importance Stéphane gives to having a personal library is manifested in two ways: in the care he has taken to gather all his books together in one place, and in the care that has gone into displaying them in a beautiful bookcase. Books are distinct, special objects, and here, in order to arrange and showcase them, they require another object—a bookshelf—that is commensurate with their particular status.

Fig. 2. The staging of attachment to the paper book as a self-distinction

Fig. 2. The staging of attachment to the paper book as a self-distinction

The example of a montage abundantly relayed by readers on the socio-digital networks.

Source: screenshot from a Twitter post

36These two examples of readers’ home libraries—readers who are either experiencing social mobility or who have developed a practice that is rare or non-existent in their original family environment—illustrate the great importance given to books as objects, in particular within the domestic space, especially when it was not obvious that the practice of reading would become part of these individuals’ social destiny.

37The emphasis placed on organizing and displaying books makes developing a practice of digital reading difficult: such a practice would both modify readers’ relation to texts and make it impossible for them to display their books in their home:

I see why people like e-readers, but I have a hard time with them. There’s a real tactile pleasure in holding a book, turning the pages, and in having books at home. It’s sad to have all your books on an e-reader instead of on a bookcase!(Émilie, F, 31 years old, employee, computer technician, BA in archaeology, father business executive, mother special education teacher, frequent reader.)

38We see clearly that for this category of reader, displaying books in the home—and especially in a room where guests are received—is constitutive of the practice of reading, so much so that it cannot be separated from it.

39This is particularly interesting given that for frequent readers who do not have such a strong material attachment to books, digital reading is seen as attractive precisely because it allows one to save space (Gaudric, Mauger, Zunigo 2016). Variations in the representations associated with books—and by extension, with digital books—can be explained by readers having different relations to books on the basis of their social background and mobility. In the context of strong associations of reading with paper, and with the sensory experience that goes along with it, and a readership particularly attached to owning and displaying books—especially readers from working-class backgrounds—it is difficult for digital reading, in spite of its practicality, to be integrated into existing reading practices.

3. The Unequal Distribution of Practices of Digital Reading

40We find, on the one hand, positive representations of digital reading and, on the other, strong hesitation about it. Given that digital reading presents a certain number of advantages and disadvantages in the eyes of the readers I studied, it is worth examining under what conditions a reader will develop a practice of digital reading, and to situate this practice within the larger context of practices of novel reading.

41First, it appears from my survey that only frequent readers own e-readers: they may have bought one for themselves, or have been gifted one by a friend or family member on account of the extent of their practice. These readers fit two profiles.

42The first are readers who are very familiar with the world of books and reading but do not have the kinds of attachment to books as objects I have described. In general, they are “inheritors” of reading (Bourdieu & Passeron 1979; Bourdieu 1979): they have not experienced upward mobility and have not had to fight for their practice of reading or acquire their literary cultural capital by making an effort to “catch up.” To quote Bourdieu and Passeron: “the essential part of a cultural heritage is passed on more discreetly and more indirectly, and even in the absence of any methodical effort or overt action. It is perhaps in the most ‘cultivated’ backgrounds that there is least need to preach devotion to culture or deliberately to undertake initiation into cultural practices” (Bourdieu & Passeron 1979: 20). Among the children of the upper classes, this kind of “underground persuasion” is the most apt to create a taste for reading and a disposition to either maintain the practice through adolescence, or to return to it as an adult. The attitude of these readers towards reading allows them to develop, as I have mentioned, a certain kind of nonchalance with respect to books as objects.

43We can observe such a nonchalant relationship to books as objects in Aurélie, both of whose parents are readers, and who has read since childhood without any apparent discontinuity. Her relationship to reading is anchored in a family practice: moments of solitary reading are interspersed with time spent discussing books with other women in her family. This is not an intellectual or “legitimate” relationship to a literature written by prestigious authors, but an everyday practice, something taken for granted and integrated into the family sphere and the ordinary environment:

They [her books] aren’t really organized actually; they’re a bit jumbled. I use some of them as a table. I take care of them, I don’t want to ruin them, but they’re all over the place. I don’t have a bookcase.(Aurélie, F, 21 years old, employee, reception/customer relations, bac, average frequency reader, parents computer scientists.)

44Aurélie’s words illustrate the relationship that novel readers who grew up in “heavily bookish” environments (Singly 1989) have with books. Aurélie does not have a dedicated spot for her books and sometimes even uses them as extra furniture (thus temporarily giving them a different function and undoing their symbolic dimension). It seems that among readers who benefitted from family socialization favourable to developing this type of relationship with books, and for whom reading has been rooted in their lives as a pastime since childhood, the practice of reading plays out more symbolically than materially. Because it is immaterial, this culture of books does not need to be displayed on a bookcase in a living room (although it may be). As Bourdieu says, “Those who are held to be distinguished have the privilege of not worrying about their distinction” (Bourdieu 1984: 249), and owning books does not mean that they find it necessary to display them in such a way as to make themselves visible as readers.This type of relationship to storing and displaying books is similar to some of the profiles found in the Mauger, Poliak, and Pudal’s study, in particular, the profile of two married literature professors:

In a home containing around three thousand volumes, an exhaustive inventory would be impossible… the living room is mostly dedicated to ‘coffee table books’ (i.e., large format and hardcover books): books on art and art history, books on cinema and opera; the complete works of certain authors (Jules Verne); a collection of Russian novels bought when the couple were at graduate school, etc. The guest room contains novels (mostly paperback editions), detective novels, for example, as well as ‘inactive’ literature connected to bygone eras in the couple’s trajectories (in particular, political literature from the 1970s). The bedroom-office has all the books they currently use, either in their work as teachers, or in preparing for internal examinations within the national education system, or, in the case of Paul, for research. The bookcases are all different, purchased separately over time as needed, they are mostly white wood, low-cost, and are not the object of any particular attachment. (Mauger, Poliak, Pudal 2010: 242.)

45In terms of how they arrange their books, this couple, both teachers, presents a very relaxed relationship to book-objects: their daily, intense practice of reading means that they own many books of many different genres, which take up the entirety of the house. But the books are not displayed with any ostentation; they are housed on low-cost bookcases, to which the couple seems not to be very attached. This is the type of relation to books we mostly find among readers who have practices of digital reading—although having a weak attachment to the materiality of books is not enough on its own to give rise to such a practice.

46This type of digital reader is rich in educational capital (within the sample group, most of them had at least a bac+5 degree). They are mostly women (who in general make up the majority of frequent novel readers) and are omnivorous readers (Peterson 2004; Coulangeon 2011), who read across multiple registers and use multiple channels to gather information about books. In short, these are the readers who read the most—in terms of number, frequency and diversity—who consume book recommendations, in various forms, the most, who read both paper and digital formats, and who acquire books in many different ways (buying in bookstores, either new or used, buying online, downloading, borrowing them from others, checking them out from libraries, etc.). These omnivorous readers are thus omnivorous not only in terms of their literary preferences but also in terms of the modalities of their reading practice. Digital reading is but one variant in an already highly diversified practice.

47The second type of e-reader user (less frequent in my sample group) is made up of readers of “genre fiction” (detective novels, historical fiction, science fiction, fantasy, romance novels)—and especially speculative fiction. Although the definition of “genre fiction” is relatively fluid (Collovald & Neveu 2013; Hommel 2017), and using this category poses numerous methodological problems (Parmentier 1986), it nevertheless allows us to understand practices on the basis of respondents’ stated tastes.

48The survey conducted by Ipsos for the CNL shows that 54% of science fiction readers said they read digitally, compared with 24% of readers overall (Ipsos/CNL 2019). These data were accompanied by a qualitative study showing that practices of digital reading are common among certain readers of “genre fiction” (in particular speculative fiction and detective novels). We may propose two possible explanations for the development of digital reading practices among these readers. First, studies of readers of speculative fiction indicate that they are younger and more tech-savvy than other readers (Hommel 2017). Second, these readers are more likely to read books as soon as they come out in their original countries of publication (English-speaking countries for the most part). Digital reading—along with purchasing paper copies online—is a way of accessing these works immediately.

The latest Robin Hobb to come out… When there are books like that, I read, I download them in English as soon as they come out and then, that way, I practise my English. And I’ve been waiting a long time, so at least this way, I don’t have to… I get it right away!(Aurélie, F, 21 years old, employee, reception/customer relations, bac, average frequency reader, parents computer scientists.)

49This way of accessing books is part of a reading practice described as addictive, with the publication of multi-volume novels (series) increasing readers’ impatience and feelings of urgency (Paquienséguy 2015).

50The possibilities offered by the digital format that I have already discussed (access to more works, immediate access, avoidance of interaction with bookstore employees and others who might judge one’s choice of reading material) are particularly meaningful for readers of “genre fiction”: the modalities of their reading practice make these qualities especially valuable.

51Finally, it should be specified that when positive representations of the practicality of digital reading were combined with a disposition that allowed readers to develop a digital reading practice, digital reading did not replace reading on paper. According to the CNL survey cited above, 23% of readers combined paper and digital reading (whereas just 1% of readers read only digitally), and these readers stated that they read on average seventeen paper books and four digital books per year (Ipsos/CNL 2019). Not only did readers with e-readers continue to read on paper, but they often associated the digital format with reading they deemed less important.

  • 7 Romance novels published by the Canadian publishing house Harlequin.

52This lesser symbolic value given to books read digitally—which is also found in the study by Gaudric, Mauger, Zunigo (2016)—represents an ultimate indicator of the practical and symbolic dominance of the paper format, even among the readers least attached to books and objects and who have already transitioned to digital reading. Literary genre influences both the medium on which books are read and how they circulate. The less legitimate the genre is—for example, romance novels (Péquignot 1991)—the easier it is to read them digitally, and to separate oneself from them (either by giving them away or lending them out), since they do not “deserve” the status of books to be kept—even in the eyes of readers who like that genre. Joëlle Bahloul observed this in 1988, writing that “readers select which books to get rid of on the basis of genre, author, and editorial format: Harlequins7 and other romance and detective novels, published as paperbacks and bearing scant material and cultural value—the genre and author are ‘illegitimate,’ the aesthetic is undervalued—are not kept in readers’ private stocks” (1988). “Genre fiction” thus circulates most easily, without readers being afraid of loss or deterioration of the book-object. Since this type of work sparks less attachment to the book as an object, it lends itself most easily to digital reading.

53Thus, although readers of novels strongly associate digital reading with practical qualities (ease of access, light weight, ability to carry a large number of books at once, immediate downloading), they are slow to develop practices of digital reading. In this article, I have identified material attachment to books as a factor explaining this lag. This attachment is at play in the sensory experience of reading on paper as well as in readers’ declared need to own and display books in their homes.

54Some readers are more likely than others to allow the positive representations associated with digital reading to lead to actual practices of digital reading. Although attachment to books as objects was present in the entire sample group, readers from higher classes, who have been socialized into reading by their families and endowed with a wealth of cultural capital, were more likely to have developed a weaker attachment to book-objects, leading them to turn to digital formats. We have also observed practices of digital reading among readers of “genre fiction”: here, the qualities of digital books match readers’ needs in the most pronounced way.

55As we have seen, not all readers of novels read digitally. Even those who do have not replaced reading on paper with digital reading, and paper remains the favoured format, in particular for novels considered to be the most legitimate.

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1 In this article, “digital reading” refers to reading on an e-reader, since this is the practice that emerged from my fieldwork—reading on computers or on tablets was not commonly mentioned in the statements I gathered. The expressions “digital reading” and “e-reading” are used interchangeably.

2 These are the categories used by the French National Institute of Statistics and Surveys (INSEE): cadres et professions intellectuelles supérieures; professions intermédiaires; employés; ouvriers; artisans, commerçants, et chefs d’entreprise.

3 41% of buyers are between 18 and 29 years old; 34.3% are between 30 and 49 years old.

4 A collection of historical romance novels published by J’ai lu.

5 FNAC is a French superstore that sells all kinds of cultural goods, comparable to Barnes and Noble in the United States.

6 The same argument was used for paper and for digital books.

7 Romance novels published by the Canadian publishing house Harlequin.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1. Jeune fille au livre, Maurice Estève (1904-2001)
Crédits © Ville de Bourges, Adagp
Fichier image/jpeg, 100k
Titre Fig. 2. The staging of attachment to the paper book as a self-distinction
Légende The example of a montage abundantly relayed by readers on the socio-digital networks.
Crédits Source: screenshot from a Twitter post
Fichier image/jpeg, 86k
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Emmanuelle Guittet, « “Me—I Need Paper” »Biens Symboliques / Symbolic Goods [En ligne], 7 | 2020, mis en ligne le 20 novembre 2020, consulté le 13 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Emmanuelle Guittet

Centre de recherche sur les liens sociaux (Cerlis)/LabEx Industries culturelles et création artistique (Icca)

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