We now know that there is more to reading than only absorbing content. When holding a book, the experience offers the reader a multisensory encounter, one that involves the visual look, the emotions evoked by the outside, the feel of the cover and paper pages, even the distinctive smell and sound of the pages as they are turned. There are exhibitions of older book collections that engage people in handling and experiencing the book itself (as a separate experience than reading the text). 

When the co-founders and I created our book publishing company in 2012, we were not alone in predicting that e-books were well on their way to becoming much more popular than the traditional print format. The corporate name reflects this, “Suncoast Digital Press, Inc.” We almost always publish a client’s book in both print and kindle formats (and sometimes audio). Why not offer readers the option? To our surprise, our authors report that a little more than half their book sales are paperbacks. Reading on tablets and phones is popular, but not dominant. 

Create your own multisensory book experience. Treat yourself to visit your own book shelves, touch and hold each or some of your books. Go to a Barnes & Noble or used book store and pick up and browse the books that you’re attracted to. Take a child to a book shop and let them choose a book after holding and looking through as many as they want to explore. 

In an article by Charles Spence, we learn that one survey showed that 62% of the respondents reported that they used physical books to help them to disconnect from the online world. (Bridge, 2017). “Indeed, one of the recently recognized problems with e-readers (Kindle) and tablets (iPad) is that that they can all too easily interfere with our sleep in a way that traditional books simply do not do. According to the results of a 2015 study by Chang et al., those reading an electronic book on a light-emitting device in the hours before bedtime take longer to fall asleep, feel less sleepy in the evening, secrete less melatonin, exhibit a later timing of their circadian clock, and show reduced next-morning alertness as compared to those who read a printed book instead.”

Despite practical benefits of using a device to store and read a book, paper formats still rule. Even the sense of smell plays a role. As Bilton (2012) puts it: “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…” 

One of my favorite novelists Ray Bradbury has been quoted as saying that: “If a book is new, it smells great. If a book is old, it smells even better. It smells like ancient Egypt” (Madeline Slaven, pers. comm., December 9th, 2019).

For a book lover like myself, it is an extraordinarily pleasurable experience to walk into my library at home and see so many of my friends, right there in plain view. As Spence notes, “Print books are physical reminders of your intellectual journeys. That beat-up copy of Catcher in the Rye on your bookshelf takes you back to sophomore year of high school. The Selected Poems of Pablo Neruda conjures up memories of late-night dorm room bull sessions. The food and wine-stained Lonely Planet Greece brings back that trip through the Greek Isles. A Kindle is just a Kindle.”

One of the most impressive aspects of many books, especially older volumes and manuscripts, is their heft and weight. Weight in the hand, as when we hold something heavy, is typically taken to denote quality and expense.  

North American neuroscientist David Linden also chose to draw attention to the tactility of his book Touch: The Science of Hand, Heart, and Mind (Linden, 2015a, b). His book is covered in a thermally-responsive material in an attempt to entice more people to interact with it in the bookstore. The likelihood of someone purchasing any product increases dramatically if they can be encouraged to pick it up in the store.

The Multisensory Display of Books

The growing recognition of the importance of the multisensory, and specifically the non-visual, attributes of books has led a number of museums, libraries, and archives to put on exhibitions that try to engage more of the visitor’s senses.

For even more in-depth information, see the full article:  Spence, C. The Multisensory Experience of Handling and Reading Books. Multisens Res. 2020 Sep 15;33(8):902-928. doi: 10.1163/22134808-bja10015. PMID: 33706265.

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