In the great debate between e-books and paper, there is one category in which paper wins hands down

Ah, the smell of books.

Most of my reading these days is done on my iPad, with its sharp, gleaming lines and dark features like some obelisk out of a science fiction film. I read books on it. I read news on it. I read my RSS feeds on it. I read all of my magazines, save one, on the iPad. I can mark up my books to my heart’s content, I can quickly search for a passage. I can carry all my books and magazines with me and adding more doesn’t add to the weight. There are oh so many good and wonderful things about e-books.

But my iPad is a sterile, odorless device. Books are entirely another matter.

Earlier in the week, I needed to pull a book off my shelves to quote a passage. The book in question was my first edition hard cover of Isaac Asimov’s autobiography (volume 1), In Memory Yet Green. I opened the book and started flipping through the pages in search of the passage and caught that wonderful scent of old book. Smells from old paper is powerful. In this instance, I was transported, in memory, back to a warm spring day in 1998  when I sat at a booth in the Swenson’s on the corner of Ventura Boulevard and Laurel Canyon, sipping from a chocolate shake and turning the pages of In Memory Yet Green. It wasn’t the first time I’d read the book, but it was a delightful moment for me and the smell of that book brings it back to me vividly each time I read it.

I have lot of old, yellowed paperbacks on my shelves and sometimes, I will stand next to a shelf and flip through the books, letting the odor waft out and inhaling it like a drug. And like a drug it is intoxicating.

Each day, at noon, I sit down with a 70-year old copy of Astounding and read. The smell of the magazine is magical. I wonder where it has been, how many homes it has passed through in its seventy year journey from the presses to my hands. There are lifetimes soaked into the yellow pages of those magazines.

New book, just off the shelf have a new book smell. Not as rich, perhaps, as a book that has had time to age, but you recognize that mixture of gloss and glue and know at once that this book is just beginning its journey, just starting to built its own collection, filling its shelf with smells from its surroundings.

The books on my iPad have none of these smells and while I’ve grown to prefer the overall reading experience on the iPad than on paper, there are some things the e-book format simply cannot replace1


  1. That is, until iPads start coming with the ability to reproduce odors and these odors are coded into the properties of the ebook files. But I’m not holding my breath.

1 thought on “In the great debate between e-books and paper, there is one category in which paper wins hands down

  1. The history of an old book is something that an ebook can never, ever, replicate. The sense of time passage in and around that book.

    Have you seen the Red Violin? I think of that, but with books rather than the titular instrument…

Comments are closed.