Print or e-book?

I wrote this column for online magazine Mamamia, and it was published in their Books section. For those who missed it, it is my take on the visceral aspect of the book.

When you curl up in your favourite armchair with a new book, do you open the pages with anticipation or do you press the ‘on’ switch on your Kindle, Kobo or i-pad? As e-book devices become more available and accessible, the merits of the e-book versus the print book have been keenly discussed by readers and booklovers, with passionate debate raging on both sides. Often this has become an over- simplified argument, a contest of the luddites versus the geeks. But there is more to it than this.

I love technology. L.O.V.E, love it. I use technology in my work and at home on a daily basis. I tweet, I am on Facebook and Linked in. I’ve explored Tumblr and I’ve used Glogster and Animoto. I am the mother of teenagers, or screenagers as the social researchers often like to refer to them, and what I don’t already know about technology they teach me. In short, technology and I are pretty good friends.

So yes, I have read the odd e-book or two. I have the Kindle app on my i-pad, and I’ve bought and read about a half dozen e-books on it. By far the best thing about the Kindle app is that it meets my 21st century need for instant gratification.  The book I want is in my hand in seconds. In fact, I can have multiple books in hand which is another huge attraction especially when I go on holidays. My Kindle allows me to change the size of the font and the colour of the page. When I‘m reading and want to find out a little more about something, I can look it up on my i-pad without even leaving my chair. Not great for my thighs, but damned convenient at the end of the day.  

But here’s the thing. When I hold the e-book in my hand, it doesn’t feel right. Reading for me has always been a very sensual activity, engaging my visual, tactile and olfactory senses. And so far, the e-book is just not doing it for me.

The weight of the e-book is wrong, the feel of it is wrong, and when I lie in bed in the evening with an e-book it is a strange and unfamiliar experience, akin to an unfaithful spouse lying beside their lover. More importantly, the smell is wrong.  My e-book doesn’t smell like a book, in fact it doesn’t smell like anything at all. New books have a distinctive crisp, fresh scent whilst older books have a distinctive musty odour enclosing the tantalising secrets of generations past.

The e-book also doesn’t collect visual memories like the pages in my old favourite books. There is a smudge of chocolate in my copy of Five Go Adventuring Again, left there because Enid Blyton made me want to snack on something delicious when the Famous Five ate their slabs of cake and drank lashings of ginger beer. My e-book has no well-thumbed pages or cracked spines to remind me that I loved a book so much I read it again and again, nor are there pages stained with the remnants of my tears such as page 362 when Mr Darcy looks at his future bride and calls her “dearest, loveliest Elizabeth”.

What the e-book lacks, the print book makes up for in spades. It’s not just about the words which lie within; it’s about the physical book itself. Books provide much of my décor and entertaining style. Books of various shapes and colours are an important part of my interior decoration scheme. My bedside table is never without a stack of books – my ‘pile of good intentions”. Books turn my home office into a proper office, a visual symbol of the knowledge held within. And when I entertain, my books are a great conversation starter.

But more than anything, my bookshelves hold the history of my life. Therein sit my favourite books from childhood and the books I received at School Awards Evenings. Alongside the school prizes sits my very first and most treasured Complete Works of Jane Austen. On the next shelf is the collection of various copies of Pride and Prejudice which I have picked up in antique bookshops over the years. Further down are the self-help and women’s health books that I was given when I had breast cancer. But most importantly of all, on the very bottom shelf resides a very old and somewhat damaged copy of News Chronicle Needlework and Crafts which belonged to my great-grandmother, and right beside it sits my treasured Complete Works of Shakespeare bequeathed to me by her son, my recently departed dearest grandfather.

How can an e-book compete with the sensory overload that resides in my bookcase? How can an e-book compete with any book kept lovingly on my bookshelf, its cover alone enough to evoke a memory which entices me to pick it up, hold it and re-live a chapter or favourite section?

My love for reading in any shape or form will always define me, but when push comes to shove my loyalty will always remain with the printed tomes that I treasure and adore.



Filed under Reading matters

12 responses to “Print or e-book?

  1. Margaret Kilvert

    Hi Karen,
    I just wanted to let you know how much I am enjoying your blog, and in particular the Mamia article. With an anniversary, birthday and Christmas just around the corner there has been much discussion in this household around e-books but you have reinforced for me that I’m not ready to take that step! Tea stains, ragged pages and random crumbs tell a different version of the story. Thanks for continuing to brighten my day.

    • Hi Margaret,
      I am so glad you are enjoying the blog. I could write all day about books and reading 🙂 Even though ebooks are here to stay, I think there will always be a place for print books. I am glad you love them as much as I do!

  2. Hi Karen, Oh what a dilemma? As reader I am in love with books. We have a room called a library and it has many titles scolding me from the shelves. “Read me, read me next, I am worthy and you can not be complete until you do.”
    On the other hand I have written 12 novels all but one of which will be published only as eBooks. I do even read a few on Kindle on my MacBook. I have fretted over buying a Kindle but… well the smell, the feel, the magic of the paper book is so ingrained in me.
    Oh well, I guess I must give in to the tech and get the Kindle but I’ll wait for the new colour one due soon.
    Thanks for the reassurance I’m not alone in this struggle.

    • Hi David,
      Yes a real dilemma. And my article really didn’t consider the implications of ebooks on authors in terms of their publishing choices. Ultimately I think all of us who read will read either the print or ebook, but my heart will always remain with the printed version. Thanks for your great feedback, Karen.

  3. Anne-Marie

    Karen, you write eloquently and it is a pleasure to read your opinion. I laughed to read “not great for my thighs”!
    I have not yet read an e-book (yes, another holiday goal 🙂 but LOVE all the sensory experiences of reading a book, as you do, and as a bookstore employee said to me very recently, – you don’t have to “turn off” your book when the plane is about to land! I also agree about the treasure trove of memories held in one’s hand when you pick back up from the shelf an old favourite and re-read it.
    Very glad to have been guided to your blog 🙂 – I look forward to future salient points from you.

  4. Jodie

    Hi Karen,
    thanks for the detour from my “home day” chores. So glad I clicked on your link in the school newsletter. As a teacher librarian in a primary school I can not imagine technology taking over the “real ” book. The sense of touch and smell are lost with e-books and while they do have their place in this technological age, they can not totally replace the original bound pages . What significance will our favourite download have in comparison to our most loved childrens book that shows the signs of wear and tear that we can pass on. I recently saw a quote containing the same concerns which dated back to when newspapers were first put into circulation….hundreds of years later…the book lives on. On of my favourite picture books which adresses this issue is called… IT’S A BOOK by Lane Smith. Check out the trailer on youtube.

    • Hi Jodie,
      Glad you like the blog. I’ve seen “It’s a book” before and I love it!! It’s very clever and helps to articulate in a simple way how many of us feel about print books.

  5. Pingback: Will the e-book kill reading? | bigbookcase

  6. Pingback: “Reading is a majority skill but a minority art” – Julian Barnes. | bigbookcase

  7. I love your blog and this post, I agree with everything you wrote. There is just something about holding a book that promises to take you on a journey that ebooks don’t always fully accomplish for me.

    Check out this post of mine, it’s on the same topic:

  8. Suzanne

    My husband gave me a Kindle for Christmas – i am yet to use it as I too think there is nothing like picking up an actual book and finding the page you are up to..
    We went to the beach for the christmas holidays and I threw my holiday book into the beach bag before we left the house for the beach one day. My husband went to the cupboard and got out the plastic clingwrap then started to wrap up the kindle in the plastic so the sand did’nt wreck it.!!… my book did’nt care it loves sand under the cover and between the pages.
    It is now July and the Kindle is still sitting in a cupboard unused…

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