That Old E-book Smell

Bye Bye Borders
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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?

Kevin Eagan (@KevEagan) is a freelance editor and writer living in Central Florida. He edits book manuscripts and articles for local and national publications. Critical Margins is his place to share his interests. You can also check out his professional website,