Released: September 28, 2012

The smell of books

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What’s in a smell? A book in any format may read the same, but it seems there’s something about the smell of print that e-books just can’t capture—for now.

Earlier this summer, New York Times tech blogger Nick Bilton wrote about wandering into a West Village bookstore on a visit to 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 conjure up memories of a summer day spent reading on a beach, a fall afternoon in a coffee shop, or an overstuffed chair by a fireplace as rain patters on a windowsill.”

But amidst this nostalgic reverie, he considers the advantages of e-books: their search functionality, ease of transport, the ability to share favorite passages with friends. He leaves the bookstore without buying anything.

Yet for some, the added conveniences of electronic books can never make up for the loss of the physical experience of reading a print book. The author Ray Bradbury famously was never a fan of e-books:

“Those aren’t books. . . .  A computer does not smell. There are two perfumes to a book. If a book is new, it smells great. If a book is old, it smells even better. It smells like ancient Egypt. A book has got to smell.”

According to Bradbury, e-books themselves “smell like burned fuel.”

Though none were as caustic as Bradbury, one of the things that struck me in the responses of our online panel was the ambivalence of these avid readers (and e-book borrowers) toward the rise of e-books. Many echoed the same thought: “Nothing can replace the feel and smell of a physical book.”

As another panelist explained:

“I thoroughly enjoy reading from my Kindle. I am honestly surprised because I am an absolute bibliophile. I love the touch, the smell, everything about a paper book. I would find it shameful if paper books were not longer published or made available. For me, my e-reader will NEVER take the place of a paper book, but it does have its own niche.”

However, some patrons noted the downside of the “used book smell.” One wrote:

“I’ve always been a book lover, but not having to deal with dirty, smelly, broken books is really nice. Instead of borrowing [print] books from the library, I’ll buy the e-book if the library’s e-book isn’t available.”

Another said that she doesn’t even borrow print books from the library because she is allergic to perfume, “and the physical books are usually smelly. E-books, on the other hand, have no odor.”

In fact, one patron felt that having fewer books at the library made the library more conducive to reading:

“I like that the libraries are not as cluttered with old smelly books now that the computers and e-book formats are around. It 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 indicate that while the lack of a “good book smell” is not a deal-breaker for most readers, it’s certainly not irrelevant.

When we asked readers what they like most about reading books, they gave a variety of responses. Many mentioned the joys of learning, entertainment, or relaxation, but a few (2%) said the physical properties of books—their feel and smell—was 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 just prefer print books in general.

Though e-book readers clearly prefer e-books to print in many situations, they may not need to sacrifice all the tactile pleasure of the printed page. In fact, nostalgic e-book readers can now recapture that new- or old-book scent with perfumes such as In The Library and Paper Passion (shown at top). And for the budget reader, Smell of Books™ claims to offer an “aerosol e-book enhancer,” available in scents ranging from its “New Book Smell” and “Classic Musty Smell” (shown below) to “Crunchy Bacon Scent.” Note—Unlike the perfumes mentioned above, this product appears to be tongue-in-cheek.

I’ll close with the words of an online panelist who described her own internal compromise between the pleasures of print and the ease of e-books. “The joy of smelling turning pages can’t be matched by an e-book, but the joy of the story from an e-book can turn someone into a physical book reader,” she said. “And the more we read the better we all are.”