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e-books vs print books, future of libraries

What’s so great about the feel of books?

by Louise Morrison

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.


About mmitscotland

CILIP Scotland special interest group. Find out how developments in Multimedia, Information and Technology are impacting on the library sector.


10 thoughts on “What’s so great about the feel of books?

  1. Hello, I’m very interested in this issue. I definitely don’t think it’s a question of competition, but I think paper books and e-books both have their own good points. However, I’m on the side that can’t see how people can’t understand the attraction of the physical book. Perhaps people will always be split into two camps here; those that have a great feeling for the physical environment and physical objects, and the book is obviously a lovely object, and those that don’t.

    Posted by Debby Raven | October 24, 2011, 9:39 am
  2. Having initially being utterly sold on the idea of the Kindle I’ve recently had a few doubts. I still recognise the convenience and efficiency of the ebook format and I am under no illusions that this will become the premier format for books. However I have started to re-evaluate the significance of what is lost with an ebook. The weight, smell, feel, size, texture, grain of a physical book contribute to a richer reading experience. And of course real books are just more romantic than an electronic copy. The text itself will always be the central draw of a book, but these extra aesthetic and aspirational elements can add a great deal to the overall experience.
    For myself I will likely take the following approach: buy (or preferably rent or loan) an ebook version of a title I am interested in – if I enjoy the book enough then I will buy a print copy to enjoy repeat readings with deluxe extras.

    Posted by libcroft | October 25, 2011, 3:29 pm
  3. I am torn. My opinion is based on my own feelings rather than how it may/may not affect the industry itself – I initially was utterly repelled by e-readers but I now find myself attracted to them. I have a large collection of books which I love to simply look at. I love the different covers, fonts and text inside. When I’m reading I enjoy looking at my progress through the book, to know how much I have read and how much I have left. It is an extremely rare occasion that I would ever carry more than 1 book so I don’t subscribe to the ‘I can have xx amount of books in my pocket’, the logistics of carrying books is really not an issue for me. Financially it isn’t a significant enough difference in book cost – I can find newer ‘real’ books on offer and I do also like pre-read books. Books can be a tactile thing, you can enjoy the feel and smell of a fresh, crispy new book or see/ feel that a book has been pre-loved. (Older books with yellowing pages and musty overtones should also not be forgotten!) BUT I would still like to try a kindle?! I think I will either love it completely or hate it totally!

    One other thing that is perhaps irrelevant – I would be sad to never open a book and find a letter/ photograph/ receipt that flutters out…

    Posted by ordinarygirl | October 25, 2011, 10:00 pm
  4. While I understand people’s attachment to the physical book (and I’m not at all immune to that), I think we also need to be talking about what this shift from the tangible to intangible means — mostly, the total (sneaky) shift from ownership of a book to the leasing of an e-book (with the small print terms and conditions that come with this). A lot of people don’t seem to realise that they do not ‘own’ ebooks in the sense that they might expect and in the same way that they would own a (non-e) book….

    Posted by Kate | October 26, 2011, 8:57 am
  5. If you drop a paperback on the pavement – it doesn’t matter, does it?

    If you drop an electronic devise though – now that’s a different story . . .

    Posted by Pat Duxbury (@PatDux) | October 27, 2011, 1:20 pm
  6. I think we still have things to learn about printed books, even if we are at present a little vague on just what those things are. The presence of e-book options forces us to pay attention to things that seemed less important before. Would the title question of this post make any sense if we weren’t learning to understand print books in a new way?

    I’ve written a longer response at my site: Thanks for provoking my thinking!

    Posted by CircleReader | November 2, 2011, 5:39 am
  7. In any discussion on the appeal of books, the allure of smell must not be underestimated.  In my youth, in the 60’s, I think I was mildly addicted to the smell of new books.  I used to go into bookshops, take a book off the shelves, make sure I wasn’t being watched, fan the pages and smell.  I would never buy a new book without smelling it first!

    For whatever reason, the smell of the pages of new books is much less appealing, nowadays.

    However, in spite of this, I would be amazed if a book still does not smell better than a Kindle!

    Posted by John Morrison | December 14, 2011, 1:31 am


  1. Pingback: What’s so great about the feel of books? by Louise Morrison | Ebooks on Crack - November 1, 2011

  2. Pingback: The Feel of Books | Reading Circle Books - November 2, 2011

  3. Pingback: Thing 21 – E-Books | Leigh 2.0 - June 13, 2013

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