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I was thinking of giving away most of my paperback mini-library. But first I wanted to make sure that reading on the Kindle wasn’t too unlike reading on paper books. Here’s what I discovered. 

Among digital screens, e-Ink devices like the Kindle comes closest to the feeling of reading on paper. The e-Ink screen mimics paper very well because there is no backlight unlike LCD screens. Despite that, it’s still not exactly like paper. It has its own type of sound, smell and texture.

In this article we'll talk about the feeling of reading on a Kindle as it compares to reading on paper. We’ll talk more about the sensory impressions and less about the general pros and cons of the Kindle versus traditional paper books (We’ll cover those in another article).

Since we are talking about feeling, let’s use the five senses as our gauge. Elementary, as they say. And who better to guide us than Pepper, our usually sensible cattle dog friend.

Exhibit A. Pepper scrutinizing a fake-paper-Kindle. And a little pop quiz: What’s another word for “detective” that came from bloodhounds?

1 - Seeing the Kindle like paper books?

When compared to reading on paper, my experience with the Kindle is almost the same, if not slightly more comfortable. This is largely because I can reduce the whiteness reflecting from the screen. 

(Compared to reading on a computer monitor though, I’ve noticed a big difference. On the Kindle, my eyes do not get tired as easily. And much less compared to a tablet or phone.)

The Kindle’s screen size matches the length and width of pocket books, making it very familiar. A lot of research went into the optimal screen size of the device.

Also, the monochrome-only display has a simplicity to it that alludes to reading a  traditional paperback. No distractions, only printed text on a white page.

Scientific research published in PLOS ONE confirmed some of my subjective observations, which I link to below. 

“The absence of differences between E-ink and paper suggests that, concerning visual fatigue, the E-ink is indeed very similar to the paper.”

From: Research titled E-Readers and Visual Fatigue.

The researchers observed a group of participants while reading a novel. They then measured 4 types of variables.

Between paper and the Kindle Paperwhite, The research found no significant difference in two variables. Namely, Eye Blinks and Visual Fatigue Scale (VFS). 

LCD screens however, showed a significant reduction in Eye Blinks, and an increase in Visual Fatigue Scale. The remaining variables either showed no marked differences or were largely subjective.

Details such as the duration and frequency of reading sessions, and how the measurements are collected, are described in the research paper.

"[E-ink and Paper] both the devices generate a very similar blink behavior."

From: Research titled E-Readers and Visual Fatigue.

E-Ink: Easy on the eyes

The Kindle doesn’t use a backlight to project light straight to our eyes. It relies on light in front or on the sides to illuminate the screen. And the Kindle also does a good job of hiding this light source so you never see any harsh bulbs.

In this way, only a soft reflection of the light reaches the eyes. Not unlike the reflection of light on paper.

In fact, if you have plenty of ambient light, like when outdoors, you can even reduce the front lights to zero, and you will still be able to read comfortably.

E-Ink screens can do this because it does not depend on lights to display text on the screen continuously. It only consumes power when the screen refreshes. You can observe this when you have a screen saver enabled. The Kindle will consume little to no electricity and yet display the image for hours on end.

Some visual advantages over paperbacks

I prefer reading large fonts with wide margins and line spacing. I can change this easily with the kindle, not so with paperbacks. 

Depending on your reading light, it's possible for the Kindle to have even less brightness than paper. This could make reading more comfortable under intense desk lamps, for example.

The newer Kindle Oasis can have a warmer yellowish light. This can have the effect of reading on those high-quality papers that have a bit of a creamy off-white color.

And then there is neck posture. The Kindle is lighter than most paperbacks. This makes it easier to hold with one hand and in different positions. Including closer to eye level, such that you can keep your neck straight at a natural position instead of stooping down. 

2 - Smelling the Kindle like paper books?

Pepper smelling a fake-paper-Kindle.

Many people, including myself, love the scent of books. The distinct fragrance reminds us of people, places, and even emotions. We can’t help it. The olfactory bulb which processes the sense of smell, also plays a role in emotion, memory and learning.

The appealing scent comes from wood pulp that comprises most paper books these days. Overtime, the wood pulp interacts with heat, light and moisture and releases organic compounds such as vanillin. This smells like, as the name suggests, vanilla.

Well, there ain’t no wood pulp in them Kindles. So no vanillin either.

Instead, for the Kindle we get a no-scent. Which isn’t that bad, specially for those who are hypersensitive to airborne particles springing from old books.

But if you must really have that scent, blessed perfumers have concocted various fragrances to mimic the smell of paper books. Here’s an example from Amazon.com:

Demeter Cologne spray, Paperback.

On this note, given that the Kindle does not produce a scent of its own, we could theoretically apply any fragrance to accompany the reading experience. Maybe use scents that could accentuate the genre being read? 

I would be curious to find out if such an exercise could aid in comprehension, and even enrich the writing.

3 - Touching the Kindle like paper books?

Since 2012, the new Kindles have a slight texture on the screen. The surface is smooth but is a little grainy. It feels like the pages of a high-quality hardcover book. This is more apparent when you flip pages and feel the surface underneath your fingertips as you drag across the screen. 

Unlike paper though, there is no risk of your fingerprints discoloring the pages. I was one of those who refused to touch the edges of paperbacks out of fear that moisture from my fingers would ruin the pristine look of the book. Instead, I will only allow my fingers an inch inside of the margins. 

Still, despite all my care, nature altered the paper throughout the years and they still got the discoloration. In hindsight, perhaps I shouldn’t have been as reticent to touch those pages =) 

Another tip to get more tactile impressions from the Kindle, is to remove the case if you have one. If you are not on the move, holding the Kindle in its bare form allows you to feel the nice matte back and keep its very thin profile. 

As the Kindle is thinner and lighter than most paperbacks, it’s easier to hold the device with one hand. Even when turning pages. 

On the flip side, paper books are still easier to jump between pages. The Kindle has bookmarks, which can get the job done. But it's not the same as inserting one finger on page A, another finger on page B, and flipping back and forth. 

My alternative to this is to highlight sections that I need to refer to often, and print them. See this for more details on how to print kindle notes and highlights.

Pepper feeling a fake-paper-Kindle.

4 - Hearing the Kindle like paper books?

My former boss told me he prefers reading paper books because he loves the “crinkle” sound of paper. I too love that sound. 

There is no crinkling in the Kindle, although you could hear your fingers swiping through the slightly textured screen. And when you gently graze the matte back surface. 

Perhaps this is a feature that Amazon can consider in the future. The Kindle can already connect to an external speaker via bluetooth. All that is needed is a trigger to play a page-turn sound clip.

Still, the Kindle offers much more audio features, more than making up for the lack of a crinkling sound. The device can play audiobooks and seamlessly switch back to reading mode. Continuing where you left off. It’s like having a very patient person read the book out loud to you when you want to. And abruptly shut up so you can read in silence when your mood changes.

See this article for more details on how to listen to audiobooks.

5 - Tasting the Kindle like paper books (that sounds a bit strange)

In the classic mystery novel The Name of the Rose, a friar in a medieval monastery plans to murder the other friars because he doesn’t like their philosophy. Since the victims like to read books in the library, he laced the pages with arsenic. So when they lick their fingers to turn the pages, they got knocked-out. Mission accomplished.

I guess people have been licking their fingers while reading books for a long time. I can imagine this would give a very palpable taste of paper books. Which might add to the “feel” of the book?

Needless to say, there’s no finger lubrication needed for the Kindle. So with respect to “taste”, the Kindle will diverge significantly from the experience with paper books. (Not to mention added protection from poison by a deranged friar. Or more aptly these days, Covid.)

However, one can more freely taste something else while reading on the Kindle: We have less to worry about if we want to enjoy our favorite beverages or delicacies while reading books. Thanks to the waterproof  nature of the newer Kindles, fear of spillage or crumbs won’t be holding our taste buds back.

Reading on the Kindle feels remarkably similar to reading on paper books. But there remains notable differences. And I foresee that we shall continue to read on both Kindle and paper books. Neither one will replace the other completely.

Pepper agrees. He doesn't mind either so long as they don't interfere with his snacks.

As for my paperback mini-library, I am reading almost exclusively on the Kindle now. And I did give away at least 50% of my paper books. The others will probably take a longer time to let go of, if at all. 

And if you have other Kindle questions you need investigated, please do not hesitate to drop us a line.

P.S. Here’s the answer to the question in Exhibit A.