Bye Bye Borders

That Old E-book Smell

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Bye Bye Borders
“Bye Bye Borders,” flickr, Russ Allison Loar

Let’s stop saying that e-books lack the good feelings we associate with print books and enjoy reading again.


One of the arguments against e-books is that because they lack physicality, they don’t have the same character as print books. Many readers associate the smell of the pages, feel of the book, and even the cover design with good memories and say this can’t be replicated on an e-reader.

There is some strong evidence to support this argument, which is usually an argument against e-books. There are studies that show a strong link between memory and physical books. According to these studies, we remember books we’ve read in print better than books we’ve read on e-readers or tablets.

No doubt this is a compelling argument for print books. Print books aren’t going anywhere. They still have a major presence in schools and in libraries (except maybe this all-digital library in Texas).

Kindle KeyboardReaders have strong emotional connections with print books, too. Many people tell me the reason they won’t move to e-books is because they like the feel of books. Also—and this is more common—they like the smell of books. There’s a connection there that can’t be replicated in digital.

But that doesn’t mean e-books don’t have their charm. Anyone who has read a book on an e-reader knows it’s possible to have a rewarding, immersive reading experience. E-books also bring new enhancements, like the ability to add unlimited notes in the margins and look up definitions at the moment of reading. The Kindle, and other readers, give context to parts of the book, like character and location names.

As I’ve said before, we need to stop thinking about the e-book as a print replacement. It’s a different reading experience. The “muscle memory” of reading, and the experience (like book smell) is important, but e-books have their own charm.

For example, I enjoy reading on my Kindle Paperwhite because it’s so light. In fact, reading on the Paperwhite is the best e-reading experience I’ve had up to this point. I don’t like the heft of some books, and I find holding up large hardcover books to read distracting. With my Paperwhite, I’m fully immersed in the reading experience and I’m not thinking about how I should hold my book. Also, I don’t have to find the best angle of light since the device is front-lit (which also means it doesn’t hurt my eyes like a tablet screen).

This argument to preserve the charm of physical books will fall apart as the next generation grows up reading on devices. Maybe our love of print is a remnant of our positive reading experiences from childhood, but if the next generation doesn’t have this memory, or it’s not as strong, digital reading will become the norm.

As early adopters of a new technology, we take on some risk. We lose some of our previous reading experiences while gaining new ones, and what’s wrong with that?

About Kevin Eagan

Kevin Eagan (@criticalmargins) is a freelance editor, writer, and teacher who lives in Central Florida. He edits book manuscripts and articles for local and national publications. In addition to writing about book technology and teaching college students how to write, Kevin works as an associate editor for punctum books. Previously, he was the books editor for Blogcritics. You can also follow him on Google+ or check out his professional website,

4 Pingbacks/Trackbacks

  • chris

    after reading a few books on my kindle, I began to notice a few things.

    -I read faster without worrying how far I am into the book because I can’t see where I am in relation to its thickness.

    -I read in places where I normally wouldn’t due to bad lighting which in turn causes me to read faster.

    – I understand more of the story due to the dictionary feature.

    – I remember more of the book because of highlighting and

    -I read longer by choosing a larger font size when my eyes get fatigued

    • Kevin Eagan

      I agree with ALL of those points. And you gained all of this without the smell or feel of a book, eh? :)

  • Matt Maldre

    Eventually, the ability to share notes and highlights in books will get easier. I can see a completely immersive experience where we can engage with other reader’s thoughts through shared notes on passages in the book.

    • Kevin Eagan

      Yes, and as we move towards this idea you mention, it gives readers the flexibility and choice to read however they want.

  • afterwordsbooks

    “This argument to preserve the charm of physical books will fall apart as the next generation grows up reading on devices. Maybe our love of print is a remnant of our positive reading experiences from childhood, but if the next generation doesn’t have this memory, or it’s not as strong, digital reading will become the norm.

    As early adopters of a new technology, we take on some risk. We lose some of our previous reading experiences while gaining new ones, and what’s wrong with that?” Oh, Kevin, there’s plenty wrong with that. The thought that there will ever be a time when parents and grandparents pull their children into their laps and read to them from an electronic reader rather than a story book full of beautiful illustrations…oy, it hurts my heart. All of my children have received books from myself and grandparents with heartfelt inscriptions inside meant only for the recipient….these are treasures that will travel with them throughout their lives and maybe someday they will find themselves sharing them with their children and grandchildren. There are studies that support that limited screen time for children is crucial to their development…with all the technology that small children are exposed to, why introduce an electronic reader into the mix? I wholeheartedly agree with you in that it does not have to be an either or choice for adults, it’s merely a preference for one reading style over another. However, as parents, grandparents, and educators, I feel we have a responsibility to make sure that the younger generation does not lose the warm fuzzy memories of sharing a book nestled in the lap of someone who’s taking a very tangible time-out from technology to create a memory with/for them. Part of that responsibility also includes modeling your reading behavior to the younger generation–if you are reading from an electronic device, no one knows if you are enjoying a great book or updating your facebook page or checking your email. Gone are the times you strike up a conversation with someone on a bus or in a coffee shop when you spy the cover of a book you’ve read and loved… Books have been gifted to me that have shaped my world, who I am as a person, from parents, mentors, lovers… Those are all very real things we will all lose if we ever decide that digital reading is the norm and that nurturing the love of physical books is no longer important. I am sorry for readers who have made the choice to use an electronic reader exclusively…its the same reason it pains me when I meet people who can never take a break from the technology that rules their lives…a week in the woods sans a computer or the plethora of electronic gadgets we all have been indoctrinated to believe we NEED, is good for the soul.

    • Kevin Eagan

      I left you a comment on Facebook. Thanks for getting me thinking about this! Since I don’t have kids I sometimes forget about the impact of reading to a kid vs. an older kid reading on his or her own.

      While I agree with your argument about disconnecting, and that the book is one way to disconnect (and that’s lost, sometimes, when reading on devices), it’s possible to read a book on a device and fall into the book like a print book. Beyond that, I guess it comes down to experience with reading on a device and preference.

  • yycgweft

    Personally, I miss stone tablets. I bemoan the loss of truly heavy books. While they didn’t always light up my life, they gave me strength to carry on. I could touch the carving and sense the depth of the author’s intention. I treasured the unique smell of each underlying quarry. These missives were the rocks upon which I built my life’s foundation. Candidly, I confess to adoring the exquisite taste of a tale on occasion. And I admit I wept bitter tears when a favorite would crumble. Today, in this era of mass produced insubstantial bits, all the world’s knowledge isn’t even dust in the wind. For shame modernity. You’ve not only stolen mass from our libraries, even our cliff notes are gone.

    • Kevin Eagan

      I just don’t understand why people can’t listen to a 12-hour epic poem, remember it word for word, then recited it while herding goats. I miss the days when people would gather around the fire to recite and listen to poems about and from the gods.

      You reminded me of this xkcd comic:

      • yycgweft

        Discover audiobooks; hundreds exceed forty hours. Sit by a hot hard drive and herd or rustle the on screen creatures of your choice. If you miss the fragrance of goat… wait a bit. They’ll be a app for that.

  • derpyherps

    I’d reply to you – but I already said what i needed to over at Reddit

    Romanticism is only one of many reasons people resist e-books and it’s a rather large straw man to paint everyone resistant as these irrational luddites hung up on things that don’t matter.

    Especially while you’re name dropping the brand and specific model of e-reader like you’re a marketer for Amazon itself.

    Put your books down, buy more things(tm)!

    • Kevin Eagan

      I’m not a marketer for Amazon, I just really like the Paperwhite. I’d like a Kobo or a Nook, too, if I owned one of them and enjoyed using it.

      It seems we’re in agreement because I don’t think everyone who is resistant to e-readers view the printed book in gushy terms. It’s just a common misconception that e-books are sanitized and don’t provide a good reading experience. I’m trying to debunk that common misconception.

      I’m happy that we both get to read the same book in our own ways. You can buy the print version and I can buy the e-book version, and we can meet later to discuss that amazing book. I’m all about having a choice. In the meantime, e-books are here to stay, and the reading experience will continue to improve as they reach critical mass.

  • Meredith

    There’s an emotional comfort found in reading for many of us that’s related to the physical act and physical sensations of reading a print book. I think that’s important to acknowledge and recognize, because it’s not a bad thing. There’s demonizing on both sides but sometimes talks about e-books go a bit snide “Oh, well, I guess you aren’t really reading for the writer’s words if you don’t like e-books…”

    There are definitely times when what I want is the emotional comfort, far more than any particular words. Likewise, I couldn’t read in print much if I didn’t have a Kindle, due to chronic pain in my hands, and I’m so grateful to be able to read all the great Gutenberg stuff that I couldn’t before due to eye strain from the computer.

  • b.h.quinn

    I read some books on my iPod/Phone and I have a Kindle that I really like, but I still have a harder time reading e-books. I tend to skim more than I do with a physical book and I do have a harder time focusing on my Kindle. I also have yet to see an e-reader (even the Nook color and the iPad) that can properly replicate a children’s picture book.

    That said, it might get there in a few years as more publishers develop their picture books for the e-reading experience. My e-reader was pretty invaluable when I spent a month in Europe. There was no way I could’ve kept up my reading without it.

  • Michelle Louring

    I read both ebooks and printed books. Yes, I do have a closer relationship to a book I have held in my hand and turned the pages on, but that doesn’t mean I will disregard the practicality of using an ereader.
    Why not choose the best of both worlds? :)

    • Kevin Eagan

      Exactly: why not the best of both? The more I think about it, I realize I’m not too picky (except bulky hardcovers–don’t like those!)

      • Michelle Louring

        I have stopped buying hardcovers as well(though I do use the ones I already have as a nightstand!), but I really don’t see why you have to choose either printed or digital. We should all be able to co-exist!

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  • Peter Licari

    I like how you continue to promote the idea that e-books and physical books don’t have to be mutually exclusive. For me, personally, I love holding a physical book when I want to spend a few days reading it. I find it easier for me to get reabsorbed when I’m physically touching the pages. However, for quick reads like 100-300 pages, I prefer the e-book. I can usually give myself an hour or two to finish those books off and it’s simply convenient. I don’t know, maybe I’m weird in how I separate my usage but it works for me. haha.

    • Kevin Eagan

      Interesting approach. To be honest, my usage depends on what is available. I prefer reading longer books, including nonfiction books, on my e-reader. I like to read project gutenberg and other free books on an e-reader. But, I like to read new fiction and books I’m not sure about purchasing by checking them out from the library. That usually means print because digital library books are harder to find and still not very user-friendly.

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  • Mark Isero

    Thank you for this post!

    I was in a bookstore today. It had physical books. And I have to say, I did appreciate looking around the shelves, checking out book covers, turning pages, feeling how one book felt differently from another.

    But I didn’t end up reading too much. For the most part, when I want to read the words in a book, I prefer my Kindle Keyboard. It helps me focus on reading.

    That is not to say that I don’t appreciate a beautiful home library. Too often, though, my physical book library becomes a repository of every book I’ve read (and perhaps some I haven’t read yet), rather than a collection of my favorites.

    That said, I do agree with Afterwordsbooks. Books for children are still better in their physical form. In addition, some studies suggest that children raised in households with tons of books do better in school than those living in print-poor environments. (Is this because the kids are read to more, or is there something about the physical books themselves?)

  • Kevin Eagan

    Great points, Mark. I’ve read some studies that say having any books in the house leads to higher literacy. Kids do better when they’re surrounded by books. Again, I’m not sure if that’s because of the physical books or because parents who own a lot of books are more inclined to read to their kids, but it’s a powerful argument.

    There’s a lot of joy in reading on an e-reader, though. There might be a change in future generations where kids associate books with childhood, but associate e-books with their late childhood, teen, and adult years. Who knows? It’s just good to have books to read!

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