Earlier this year, a linguistics professor at American University in Washington DC surveyed more than 300 college students around the world and found that – ta-da! – 92% of them prefer physical books to digital books.

This news gladdens my heart. (But is that my sentimental side talking?)

Lately I have been hauling my first-generation but still dependable e-reader back and forth to work with me on the bus. It fits nicely in my backpack. It weighs almost nothing, even when I’m reading a big door-stopper of a book. I can find its nubby leather cover easily in my bag when I fish around for it. It keeps my place (usually).

The battery lasts a long time. I can get e-galleys from publicists and thus avoid the postage and the environmental burden of an advance reader copy, which I would later have to recycle.

And yet … and yet … I, too, prefer print. I deeply love the feel of paper, the smell of old books, the smell of bookstores, the existence of bookstores, the glowing, dusty presence of books lined up on wooden shelves in every room of my house.

I thought these feelings might be because I’m old, and maybe they are. But this poll was of students, and the students feel the same way – even the sentimental part.

“There are two big issues,” said the professor, Naomi Baron, in an interview with the New Republic magazine. “The first was they say they get distracted, pulled away to other things. The second had to do with eyestrain and headaches and physical discomfort.”

But also – and this is more up my alley – “They care about the smell of a book,” she said. “There really is a physical, tactile, kinesthetic component to reading.”

Students also noted that e-books are fine for casual reading but not for serious reading; I agree. Mostly what I read on my e-reader is books for fun or books that I race through, just to keep up. If I am reviewing a book, I need paper – paper that I can yellow-highlight and dog-ear the corners of and slap with sticky notes.

I do know people with vision problems who love their e-book readers because they can blow up the type to a more readable size. A friend of mine who has painful rheumatoid arthritis says that a digital device is much easier for her to handle than a big hardcover book; e-books, she says, have returned the joy of reading to her.

I would never, ever argue with that. But until digital devices can be programmed to replicate the rough feel of paper, or to emit the dry, slightly musty scent of old books, they won’t be perfect. (And even then, not.)

They have their place, they have their use, but they will never be quite the same as a real book. – Star Tribune/Tribune News Service