Books

In Which, Emphatically And Forever, I Decline To Care How Books Smell

a pile of old paperback books.
iStockphoto.com

Am I the only person whose books don't smell like anything?

My. Books. Do. Not. Smell. Like. Anything.

There are exceptions, yes. If they accidentally were in the back of my closet when it rained really hard and the back part of the closet got wet because sometimes basement apartments are like that, then yes, they might smell vaguely the same way sheets smell if you leave them damp in the washer for three days at the conclusion of the spin cycle. It's not wisdom — it's mildew. If you leave stuffed animals in the same box with books, they will develop some — not all, but some — of the same smells. The box my Operation game came in would smell not entirely dissimilar to my copy of Sounder.

And yes, it has been scientifically demonstrated that there exists an old-book smell that contains "a combination of grassy notes with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla over an underlying mustiness." Which sounds like either the world's most unexpectedly palatable funeral parlor or the world's most disappointing wine. If you own a lot of very old books, your books probably have an actual old-book smell.

But I do not own a lot of old books. I do not have a 600-square-foot library in which to store old books. I often get rid of books once I've read them, not because I hate books and therefore enjoy tearing them apart, setting them ablaze, and dancing around the fire while cackling and watching episodes of American Idol, but because now I've read them. The words in them have crawled into my brain, and that's where they live now.

If I tried to store and keep everything I've ever read, ever owned, ever enjoyed over the course of my life, I would now be precariously perched at the top of a four-mile high stack of contemporary constitutional theory, true crime, Sweet Valley High books, and, yes, Shakespeare. Physical ownership of smelly old books is not important to me, and based on my experience, it's not important to a lot of people who read a lot. That doesn't mean it shouldn't be important to anyone, but it does mean there are no points to be scored for seriousness of purpose as a reader by demonstrating the intensity of the passion with which you rub your cheek against the ancient binding and sense yourself growing wiser.

How we read, after the jump.

My day-to-day experience of reading generally involves things that I am reading now, which often means relatively new books — either new books, or newly acquired copies of old books. Now, I freely admit that if I get my nose within in inch of the paper, I can smell "book." Which, loosely defined, means "paper and ink." I cannot smell wisdom. I cannot smell memory, or the past, or people who were reading a hundred years ago and have handed down their tradition of reading by firelight.

You know when I sense wisdom? I sense wisdom from the words. For me, language contains wisdom and tradition and history, whether printed on a page, heard aloud, read on a screen, or recalled because it was meaningful. My family used to read aloud when we were on camping trips — that's where I first heard the stories "The Most Dangerous Game" and, very memorably, "Leiningen Versus The Ants." I have vivid memories of both, despite the fact that I have no memory of ever holding either in my hands.

I'm not offended by people who like how books smell. I'm not offended by the plethora of book-odor fetishists now insisting that e-Readers will never replace their love of the way books smell. Everything can and should have fans. There are people who love egg cups, there are people who love owning albums on vinyl, and there are people who love to physically possess a lot of books. The problem comes when they imply that if you do not have that instinct, then there is something missing from your life as a reader, and not just that you happen not to be a collector.

Consider this statement: "I just don't believe the cool, sleek plastic of an appliance that looks like a large Game Boy can truly carry the weight of memory and myth that is absorbed into the bindings of the books we cherish." Note that this does not say, "For me." It implies, "in general."

On top of that, the entire story the writer tells to support this thesis has absolutely nothing to do with a book's unforgettable stink. She talks about spending the summer reading, curled up in a little room or walking around alone. Of romance novels, she says: "What was important was that they were available in abundance and free to a girl with very little money and a very hungry appetite. What was important was a whole summer immersed in reading."

Precisely! Note what she does not say: "What was important was that I sat around all day smelling my romance novels." As hard as it is to believe, she could have sat in that same room with a Kindle. She could have taken those same walks with it. I have done this. Do not tell me you cannot curl up with a Kindle in bed on a rainy day; I have done it; you are wrong.

"BUT IT WOULDN'T BE THE SAME!" No, of course it wouldn't. Nothing people do 25 or 50 years after you did it is going to look and feel like your memories. Example: People make mix CDs now; there are things about making mix tapes when I was a kid that were different. It was more difficult; it was less perfect. But I do not tell myself that, because it isn't the same, it is a lesser experience or means less to the people experiencing it now than my memories meant to me. My memories of making a mix tape with my sister — taped live over the air from the radio, specifically the "Dick Clark National Music Survey" — are precious, but not because of the clickety-clack of tape buttons, or how you could hear us laughing occasionally while we were taping. They are precious because of her, and because of the way we hilariously tormented my parents by playing that tape every day in the car during a six-week cross-country family trip, and if she and I had grown up making mix CDs, I'm quite confident I'd remember just as many things about that.

Since I got a Kindle, I read more. Isn't that the point? I read more. I read more because it's easier to get books, I read more because some books are cheaper, I read more because I spend a lot of time on public transportation and the Kindle is far easier to carry than a bunch of books. I read more because reading one book makes me think about another book, and I can go pick out another book thirty seconds after I finish the one I'm working on. I read more because I can start reading a book about 30 seconds after literally the first time someone tells me it's good. I smell books less, but read them more. I ask you: net win, or net loss?

I cannot help feeling like the refusal to acknowledge that reading in ways that do not involve printed books is still reading contains an element of unconscious presumption of a lot of privileges: the money to buy books, the space to store books, the right to cut down trees to create books, and — let us not forget — the good vision required to read books using your eyes at the font of the publisher's choice off a printed page.

Do you suppose that visually impaired people who listen to books on tape do not experience the true nature of reading? Do they not have the same right to their memories of great books that you, as a person who loves to take physical books down from the shelves and read them over and over, enjoy? Would you tell that person, "Well, you can listen to your books, but your audiobooks do not have the weight of memory and myth that my bound books enjoy, because I can't stick my nose up to your tape recorder, inhale, and be transported"? I think you wouldn't. If one has the resources to belong to the public library but not to purchase books, and therefore does not take ancient favorite books off the shelves to smell and stroke them because their physical presence is transient, is there no love of reading?

I think it's great that there are people who love the physical possession of books. They are collectors; they should be happy collectors. But collectors and readers are very different populations, and the fact that e-Books don't work for collectors doesn't mean they can't work for readers, because earnest, serious reading does not always coincide with a desire for collecting, and the accumulation of memory and myth does not always come from smelling and fondling your books.

On the other hand, I have a cold right now. Maybe if I smell them next week.

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