Digital books have been threatening the printed word for years - but now a campaigning Scottish professor is warning that if the physical book vanishes then so will much of culture and a lot of what’s best about humanity. Neil Mackay reports.

In the digital age, the physical book needs all the champions it can get – that’s why Professor Tom Mole is buckling on his armour and going out to fight.

He’s making it clear, from his study in Edinburgh University’s English department, that if the physical book fails and fades into history, so will the greater part of our culture, identity and humanity.

Fittingly, he’s written a new book to celebrate and defend the traditional page-turner. The Secret Life of Books explores everything we don’t think about when we think about books. Rather than just the words inside, Mole is interested in the book as a "thing" and how, out of all our inventions, it has had the most profound impact on humanity.

Granted, books have shaped ideas and shared knowledge, but Mole’s argument is that there’s much more to them than ideas alone.

“I want people to realise how important the book as an object is to our lives as individuals, the way we understand ourselves, the way we think about relationships with other people, the way we understand ourselves as members of groups and societies and even nations," says Mole, who heads the Centre for the History of the Book.

Books have so many roles, beyond the simple word. They have rituals attached to them, for instance – people swear on the Bible in court. They measure our lives – they’re given at graduations and birthdays, family bibles are inscribed with the dates of births, deaths and marriages.

Whether it's Salman Rushdie or Fifty Shades, the book you read says so much about you. And it lets other people know what you think of them – do you always buy your dad a book about golf for Christmas?

And books can kill – in conflicts books are burned, and libraries are often attacked in war as a means of attacking the spirit of a nation. In oppressive regimes simply possessing a certain book is an act of rebellion.

Digital ebooks do none of this – yet they threaten the future of the printed book. Around 50% of us now read on a device. In just a decade, ebooks have grown to consume a fifth of the UK’s £3.6bn book market.

“We’re now in danger of abandoning the paper book without really appreciating how important it is,” says Mole. “There’s a real cost if we stop using paper books.”

“We continually overlook what books are doing to us,” he goes on. “We don’t look at books, we look through them – we do this from a young age, and learn to lose ourselves in books.

“You get this seamless connection between the reader and the content but actually that blinds us to all the other things that books are doing to us.”

Books shape people. Mole tells the story of a professor who was a “prisoner” of his own books. Over the years his office became so filled with books that there was no more room for the professor. His books shaped his life.

Books have always been integral to love, sex and relationships. Back in the 1500s when Henry VIII was pursuing Anne Boleyn the pair shared a Book of Hours – a medieval religious text. The pair swapped the book between each other writing love notes in the margins. How many times since have lovers used books to signal their desire for one another?

“They’re using that book as a go-between," Mole says of the Tudors. “It’s a relationship structured around a book.” No-one is going to jot love notes in the margin of an ebook. No-one is going to buy an ebook as a romantic gesture. When it comes to the physical book, 99% of what it does isn’t even thought about.

“Friendships can blossom over a shared love of a book, or a book which someone gave you, but also friendships can falter over books that are loved by one person and hated by another, or borrowed and not returned,” says Mole. “Books are absolutely there in our most important relationships – with our children and partners.”

Mole spends time, like many academics, in the British Library in London. It’s a towering, imposing fortress of books. “There you have the nation’s knowledge materialised on a grand scale,” he says. “It’s there to say ‘here’s the knowledge of Great Britain, we’re an intellectual powerhouse and our knowledge can rival that of anywhere else in the world’ – that’s a very powerful way in which the book helps us imagine ourselves as a nation. The library is giving you a message which isn’t the same as any of the books in the library.”

Think of Glasgow’s Mitchell Library. The Victorian building immediately says this is a city built on empire. Then look at our capital – Edinburgh, a Unesco City of Literature. Edinburgh is built on books by the likes of Robert Louis Stevenson and Muriel Spark. Waverley station is named after a Walter Scott book. Scott has his own monument in the city, and he’s commemorated with a statue in Glasgow’s George Square. Books tell the stories of great cities and great nations.

Mole thinks there are three buildings in France which sum up the spirit of the nation – the Arc de Triomphe, the Eiffel Tower and the Mitterrand Library. “One is made of stone, one of steel, and one of books,” he says.

Ebooks don’t need libraries. They can’t reflect the spirit of a nation. “Physical books are embedded in our culture, identities and society,” says Mole. “If the book changes then all those things change as well. You can’t just substitute a screen for a page and expect that nothing else changes.”

Mole has also looked at how the screen and page differ in terms of the workings of the brain. “There’s already evidence that people don’t retain information as well if they read on screen, that they don’t comprehend as rapidly and easily,” he says. Surveys of undergraduates show they prefer text on paper than screen. Undergrads still prefer to go to their university library to study even if they’re reading notes on their laptops. Just being around books makes them feel studious.

“They want to study, they want to be in the right frame of mind for that,” says Mole, “so they go to the library, a place of books – even if they aren’t pulling the books off the shelves.”

The paper book captures our imagination – we lose ourselves in the physical book, that’s its magic. Digital distractions kill imagination. To Mole, the digital world is “inimicable to reading”.

Mole thinks one of the reasons that ebook sales are starting to stall is because people just can’t engage with them on a deep emotional level. Often we’re using devices not even designed for reading, like phones, which increases the level of distraction. At least ebooks try to mimic the experience of the physical book. Reading a book on a phone is like trying to use a car to cross a river.

But for all the threats to the physical book, Mole is relatively sure that reports of its demise have been exaggerated. “If the book were just a delivery system for words then we’d have given it up for a better, faster, more efficient delivery system just as we gave up the telegram for email,” says Mole. “But it’s not that – the book is all these other things as well, that’s one reason why it’s been so tenacious, that’s one reason why people are reluctant to give it up.

“There was a period when you had headlines about ebooks outselling paper books and now that’s not the story anymore. The more recent figures show that the ebook market has plateaued and doesn’t seem to be making advances, and actual paper books are selling more than they were a couple of years ago.”

For now, then, the paper book seems safe, and folk like Tom Mole can continue their love affair with the printed word.

• The Secret Life of Books: Why They Mean More than Words by Tom Mole is published in hardback on September 19 by Elliott & Thompson, priced £14.99