I’ve noticed that conversations with e-reader non-adopters always seem to end with proclamations about how much they love the feel of real books in their hands; e-books are all very well, they say, but you can’t beat the feel of a traditional, print book can you?

The sheer prevalence of this response has got me thinking about what it really means. Interestingly, when questioned further about what exactly they like about the feel of books, the conversation turns more vague and, if pressed on how this compares to the e-reader experience, most of these book-feel fans admit they haven’t tried one.

I am a recent Kindle adopter and I love it. It’s light, portable and convenient and, having used it for a while, print books now feel a bit cumbersome and unwieldy in my hands. Large hardbacks seem particularly difficult to manipulate and carry while new books spring shut too easily unless you break the spine, a definite bibliophile no-no. On a recent trip to Rome, my Kindle allowed me to transport several guidebooks, 2 Italian phrasebooks and a number of novels to keep me informed and entertained throughout my trip, something I could never have achieved through the physical book medium.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that the rise of the e-book is problem-free. Clearly there are issues such as increased cost and privacy concerns. I also worry about literary content increasingly being licensed to users rather than owned in the same way that a physical book is owned and the limitations imposed by restrictive DRM software.

There are also things I do miss about the physical book format, the book-shelf experience for one. I spent a very pleasant half an hour last weekend browsing my book-shelf with a friend, discussing books I’d enjoyed and passing on novels I thought she’d enjoy. Browsing the list of e-books on my Kindle does not offer a similarly satisfying experience and, although Amazon has introduced some lending rights on e-books, this is currently not available in the UK, and in any case it would only be possible to other owners of the same device.

But the feel of books? I can’t say that’s something I miss. I love reading. I’ve been an avid reader since I was a child and I think the written word might be the medium that has inspired and moved me the most in my life so far. What has inspired and moved me, though, is the content of the books I’ve read, whether this was printed on a page or delivered digitally via my Kindle.

Perhaps the enthusiasm for the feel of books originates from a vague fear that a comforting and familiar medium is being phased out. Undoubtedly the structure of the publishing, book retail and library environments will look very different in years to come, and not all of the developments will be for the better. Times change though and, like it or not, technological progress will not, and should not, be stopped. The complete reorganisation of an entire industry has happened many times in the past, the move from analogue to digital cameras for example and of course the advent of the mp3 player, and it will happen again in the future.

Some people seem to view the rise of e-books as a danger to literature that should be fought. Take for example the recent comments by Booker winner Julian Barnes, about print books having to be beautiful to resist the rise of e-books. It’s as if it’s a competition, lines have been drawn and you have to pick one side or the other. One friend told me recently that, though she thinks an e-reader would be more convenient, she would feel a bit disloyal to the print book format by moving over to the e-book camp.

I don’t see it as a competition. As long as I am able to feed my passion for reading, one way or another, I will be happy. Instead of putting up futile resistance to the e-book format, I think our energy should be directed towards making this new medium as effective as possible. We need to fully understand the benefits and the risks associated with e-books and address these now, while the industry is still in its formative years.

I would be really interested to hear what everyone else thinks about this issue, please comment! You can follow me on Twitter @MmITScotland

Via MmITS Blog


  1. Trivialities are everywhere. Print book advocates always mention the smell and feel of books. Screen advocates always mention a good story or the disembodied content and they disdain digital rights management or other obstacles to free content. Each grasps at distinctive affordances of their favorite medium, but those affordances deserve much better definition. Some specialist communities have capacity to provide such definitions. For example the library preservation community is one of the few that can actually explain the continuing role of print books in a context of their screen delivery. Here is an outline of support functions routinely experienced in library preservation practice.
    • BACK-UP: capacity for regeneration of the screen copy as may be needed due to systems failure or compromise. (i.e. proprietary take-down, governmental censorship, copy right infringement take-down)
    • MASTERING: capacity for augmentation, enhancement or perfecting of faulty screen copy (i.e., adding missing pages, adding foldouts or color to Google book copy, adding a missing image of the book cover, or increased image resolution or other direct enhancement)
    • AUTHENTICATION: capacity for resolution of forensic, production or provenance questions (i.e., cotton content of 19th century paper, distinction between copy and source faults, evidence of copy manipulation or sophistication, verification of margins and edges)

    Other specialist enclaves are also positioned to define affordances and interplay of the screen and print book. These include clinicians of readability efficiencies, independent bookstores, academic book studies scholars and book artists. Such communities avoid conflicts and displacements of more diffused sectors such as those of publishers, educators, or information technologists.

    Let’s assume we can dig down and arrive at convincing narratives of the interplay of print and screen books. We can then ask if lively interaction itself is the future of the book. So far it certainly looks that way; we observe intersection of the advent of a new media in context of domination by a previous, we experience revised expectations as new and previous media interplay and redefine each other, we project interdependence as print and screen books persist together co-operatively.

    A classic example of intersection, interplay and interdependence of new and old media is presented by Western papermaking and Western printing. These media technologies intersected, from origins of relative isolation. However, by the 19th and 20th centuries, hybrid products of paper and printing eclipsed prospects of either medium alone. The fabulous circus broadsides of the 19th century come to mind or the 20th century daily newspaper. An accentuated interdependence of technologies, markets and uses merged paper and printing into a single transmission system of print publication. Potential for interaction of print and screen books is equivalent.

    Given a tendency for communication technologies to merge and redefine each other we should be suspicious of reports of outright super-cession of print by screen books. What is eerie is not the conflict, but a stunning complementary fit of attributes of screen and print books. Print insularity and screen connectivity combine to encompass every agenda; those that maintain bibliographic entities and those that dissolve these entities. Print attributes of content fixity, manual navigation, and persistent access across time all pair nicely with screen attributes of live content, automated search and navigation, cloud repository, and electronic delivery. A self-authenticating nature of the print book is the perfect complement of the self-indexing nature of the screen book. Does anyone mention such a surprising, spontaneous interdependence? Can such a stunning, self-organizing media ecology ever be explained?

  2. Humans are remarkably adept at growing used to things over a period of time; my kids are already used to reading classic books on Project Gutenberg, not only because of changing reading trends, but also because my physical copies of such venerable tomes are first editions, and not to be touched lightly nor by lightly-peanut-butter-scented hands. In ten years most young readers will be completely used to the idea of eReading and will likely regard paper books as novelties or collectors items.

    Personally, I prefer the feel of paper to a degree, but not to such a degree that it prevents me from reading digital prose. Its much more a feeling of nostalgia than an actual preference, namely one that provokes behavioral change.

  3. Humans are very susceptible to associative behaviours. People grow accustomed to reading with the radio on, and then need it on to enjoy their reading. The same with reading in a particular room. My son can only study in a back section of his school library, otherwise he can’t concentrate. My brother used to have to bring a comic to the loo if he wanted to do his ‘business’…. Our lives are full of them.
    The difference between some people and others is that some have allowed themselves to become so dependent on these associated behaviours that they are unable to be self aware about them or to separate them and move on.
    All this talk of the smell and feel of paper, the weight of the book, the texture of the print …… is just part of this dependency behaviour. It’s not really surprising. We ALL have these feelings. But I would expect intelligent people to be able to get past it and move on.

  4. Recently I have revisited a few of my favourites. I am reading those paper books to my kids.

    In the past I have given very little thought to the format of the [paper] book or to the used font. Now, that I can change font on my e-ink reader I find many fonts used in my old paper books less-then-optimal.

  5. I’ve heard these arguments as well, but every time technology changes there are always some who prefer the old way.

    I recall when I was a boy a neighbour boy saying he couldn’t watch black and white TV because it hurt his eyes. And when beta max was being run out by VHS, and now DVD by Blu Ray there were always proponents for both sides.

    Frankly, I embrace both forms of book because like you I love story. No matter how the story is delivered to me I will read it. But then I’m a baby boomer.

    I expect in a hundred years (or maybe less) print books will disappear altogether and e-books, in a form far more advanced than today, will have replaced them completely.

    After all we don’t make a lot of buggy whips anymore do we?

  6. It’s merely the first–and often the only–thing that comes to the minds of those who really want to say, “I don’t want to change.” It’s an excuse, the equivalent of refusing to go to the gym because “It’s raining outside, and I don’t feel like getting wet.”

    And just as the above example illustrates, it’s a complete non-sequitor. What, exactly, does the feel of paper have to do with being entertained or edified by words? Nothing. Books are merely vessels to hold words… and only words. There are better ways of presenting those words, including using devices that can define, expound on and cross-reference those words on-the-spot, giving the reader even more entertainment and edification from those words.

    Tell me the feel of pulped, chem-washed, bleached and pressed wood beats that.

    Question for LibraryWeb: What is it about “the bookshelf experience” that can’t be duplicated online or with a reading device… and probably made better?

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