A book of any format might read the same, but it seems there’s something about the smell of printed paper that e-books just can’t capture — for now.
Earlier this summer, New York Times tech blogger Nick Bilton wrote about his visit to a West Village bookstore while visiting New York:
“I immediately felt a sense of nostalgia that I haven’t felt in a long time. The scent of physical books—the paper, the ink, the glue—can evoke memories of a summer’s day reading on the beach, a fall afternoon at a coffee shop, or an overstuffed chair by the fireplace while rain pelts on a windowsill .”
But amidst these nostalgic musings, he ponders the benefits of e-books: their searchability, ease of transport, ability to share favorite passages with friends. He leaves the bookstore without buying anything.
Yet for some, the added convenience of electronic books can never compensate for the loss of the physical experience of reading a printed book. Author Ray Bradbury is known to have never been a fan of e-books:
“These aren’t books. . . . A computer doesn’t smell. A book needs two perfumes. When a book is new, it smells good. When a book is old, it smells even better. It smells like ancient Egypt. A book has to smell.”
According to Bradbury, “E-books themselves smell like burnt fuel.”
While none were as scathing as Bradbury, one of the things that struck me about our online panel’s responses was the ambivalence of these avid readers (and ebook borrowers) about the rise of ebooks. Many repeated the same thought: “Nothing can replace the feel and smell of a physical book.”
As another panelist explained:
“I really enjoy reading from my Kindle. I’m honestly surprised because I’m a total bibliophile. I love the touch, the smell, everything about a paper book. I would find it shameful if paper books were no longer published or made available. For me, my e-reader will NEVER replace a paper book, but it has its own niche.”
However, some customers noted the downside of the “used book smell”. one wrote:
“I’ve always been a book lover, but it’s really nice not having to deal with dirty, smelly, broken books. Instead of borrowing [print] Library books, I will buy the e-book if the library e-book is not available.”
Another said she doesn’t even check out printed books from the library because she’s allergic to perfume, “and the physical books usually stink.” E-books, on the other hand, have no smell.”
In fact, one user felt that fewer books in the library made the library more conducive to reading:
“I like that now that there are computers and e-book formats, libraries aren’t so cluttered with old smelly books. This makes the libraries feel less like old bookstores and more like a living room waiting for readers to sit down and read.”
Finally, the results of our national survey show that while the lack of a “good book smell” is not a purchasing criterion for most readers, it is certainly not irrelevant.
When we asked readers what they enjoy most about reading books, they gave mixed answers. Many mentioned the joys of learning, entertainment or relaxation, but a few (2%) said that the physical properties of books – the way they feel and smell – are their favorite part of reading. And among Americans who don’t currently own an e-reader (like a Kindle or Nook), about 16% said the main reason is that they prefer printed books in general.
Although e-book readers clearly prefer e-books to print in many situations, they may not have to sacrifice all the tactile pleasure of the printed page. In fact, nostalgic e-book readers can now recapture the scent of new or old books with perfumes like In The Library and Paper Passion (see above). And for the budget-conscious reader, Smell of Books™ claims to offer an “aerosol e-book enhancer” available in scents ranging from “New Book Smell” and “Classic Musty Smell” (see below) to “Crunchy Bacon Scent” are enough. Note – Unlike the perfumes mentioned above, this product seems ironic.
I’ll close with the words of an online panelist who described her own internal trade-off between the joys of print and the simplicity of e-books. “The joy of smelling the pages turned cannot be matched by any e-book, but the joy of the story of an e-book can make someone a true book reader,” she said. “And the more we read, the better off we all are.”