“Books are not dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them” (John Milton)
Oh, I meant to ask you. Do you read the National Geographic or do you smell it? I smell it. A cousin gave me a subscription when I was a child as she noted I always made for it at her house, but it wasn’t a literary or even a geographical interest. It has a distinct unforgettable transcendent apotheotic (?) and very grave odor. Like no other mere magazine. If Time smelled like the Nat’l. Geo. there would be some excuse for its being printed.
—Flannery O’Conner Letters of Flannery O’Conner (164)
“There tends to be a cult of what I call paper sniffers who are very attached to their print books. They bemoan the decline of the physical book. But print books aren’t going away”
— Jane Friedman (editor at Writer’s Digest, author and blogger at There Are No Rules)
In elementary school, at least, paper was not just about the visual realm; in arts & crafts classes, paper was a fully sensuous, synesthetic, and kinesthetic experience. Of course we read chapter books and enjoyed illustrated classics (almost) devoid of words, such as Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. Paper was a tactile experience: soft tissues, pulpy construction paper, glossy magazines, newsprint staining fingers blue-black. Paper was an aural experience, listening to the clippings and cuttings and the soft swooshes of safety scissors slicing through construction paper. Paper was haptic, folding into origami cranes, bending into a circle to make a paper crown, ripping papers in half by hand, glue making fingers sticky. Paper was kinesthetic; emerging hand-eye control was needed to color within the lines or to properly glue a gemstone into a particular designated area. Being sloppy could result in a dreaded paper cut. Working with paper was also a highly olfactive experience. Sanford Mr. Sketch Scented Markers came in several wonderful color/ flavor combinations: Black/Licorice, Red/Wild Cherry, Blue/Blueberry, Green/Mint, Yellow/Lemon, Brown/Cinnamon, Purple/Grape, and Orange/Orange. Elementary school paste was scented like mint. Ditto paper with purple print smelled of bananas due to the acetate mixture.
Bruce Smith, in Phenomenal Shakespeare, recreates for modern readers the physical and sensate experience of the early modern reader. For Smith, the difference in size between a quarto which could comfortably be held by the reader in both hands, an octavo, small enough to be held by one hand as an easel, or the larger folio, which needs to be laid upon a table to be read, affects the experience of reading. This physicality of the book, in Smith’s example, of the different editions of Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis, and the surrounding Tudor environment, complete with Venus & Adonis inspired wall hangings, bed coverings, storage boxes, playing cards, etc. all work together to affect the way the readers read this poem. In these examples of visual depictions of the lovers in flagrante delicto, the reader is single voyeur, but in Shakespeare’s poem, the reader is confronted by the violence of penetration into Adonis’ body gored by the boar, into the secluded bedchamber, and into the psyche. For Smith, it is not just the content of the poem, but the surrounding context in which the poem is read and the immediate materials which ultimately causes the ‘state of ambient swoon… between the body and the world-at-large’ (131).
I would argue that similar somatic and sensual appropriations and influences happen between the olfactive world and the literary object. The smell of books is an important and sensuous appreciation of the text as object or thing, part of the corporeality of the book. Before we delve into intricate plots or fascinating characters, we begin with the physical object.
Don’t judge a book by its cover. This maxim tells us that the exterior may be deceptive; it is what is on the inside that really counts. That of course is true of any book. We love Romeo & Juliet for the tragic tale of star-crossed lovers and its beautiful prose, not because a certain costly edition may be bound in red leather and gilt edges. Or we aren’t supposed to admit that while “the play is the thing,” we might like that edition better than a worn, musty dog-eared copy from a used bookstore.
With e-books, the corporeality of the book is changing. Many e-books can replicate the appearance of a printed book, and readers can highlight or annotate on several e-reader models. For the aurally minded, some e-readers can read to them. Yet, there are certain qualities that an e-reader cannot replicate, such as the smell of the book.
Ben Ehrenreich writes about the long-standing fear of the death of the book which predates Kindle and Nook by several generations. Ehrenreich is guardedly interested in the future of books as electronic texts, but dismisses both those wildly embrace the new technology and the tendency toward “Biblionecrophilia, the retreat of the print-faithful into a sort of autistic fetishization of the book-as-object—as if Jeff Bezos could be convinced to lay e-profits aside by recalling for a moment the soft, woody aroma of a yellow-paged Grove Press paperback.”
Ehrenreich’s opening lines anthropomorphize books: “Books were once such handsome things. Suddenly they seem clunky, heavy, almost fleshy in their gross materiality. Their pages grow brittle. Their ink fades. Their spines collapse. They are so pitiful, they might as well be human.” In this depiction, books are corporeal and their parts correspond with the achy and ruined bodies of the elderly: the pages as brittle and dry skin; ink as fading beauty, vitality, or even hair color; their spines, as well, bent and broken spines. It is a sad rendering of the book, as octogenarian, maybe still sage and dispensing wisdom, but physically frail and disintegrating.
On the website Library Thing (a community of 1.2 million book lovers), there were 94 responses for the question: “Do you smell your books?” Two sample respondents demonstrate the fetishistic quality of smelling books:
“OK, I don’t want to admit to it but I’m reading a book with a particularly lovely book smell. Every so often I hold my nose close to the pages and inhale. Am I a weirdo? Also, have you ever caught a whiff of a book and it has reminded you of a previous book? I have.”—Amandameale
“Yes! I love the smell of books. Old books and musty ink is the best, but new books and that ‘fresh from the press’ smell is great too. When I was little I had a copy of Ladybird’s version of The Little Red Hen, and it had a wonderful scent. Slightly of the red floor polish we used to polish our floor with, slightly sweet too, and of something I’ve never come across before since then. Mmm it was great, I loved the picture of the wheat and the bread, it went so well with the smell. I’d nearly forgotten about it till I came upon this discussion, too!” –Terrapin Jetta
In both of these responses, the sniffing of the printed book demonstrates a complex intimacy with the physical object that transcends the words contained within.
For Amandameale (the first respondent), sniffing the text is a covert activity, which she fears might label her a weirdo. There is a type of excitement in learning that she may not be the only one who enjoys this particular sensation, just as someone with a slightly kinky streak may like to learn that others enjoy that same bizarre thing she does. For both Amandameale and Terrapin Jetta, the smell of books creates a Proustian recollection of other books smelled and enjoyed. Amandameale spends enough time with her books that the smells of some allow her to remember the similar scents of other books, creating a correlation of texts not based on similarity in plot or prose but something decidedly more primal.
For Terrapin Jetta, her olfactory experience also triggers memories (of a favorite childhood book), but in this particular case her book’s sweet aroma seemed to correspond to the book’s illustrations of food. Images of food, a text describing food, and a sweetish aroma create a synesthetic feast; at the same time, Terrapin Jetta also recalls the setting of her childhood home, the scent of floor polish, the very setting she most likely read The Little Red Hen.
For those who wish to enjoy all the modern convenience of an electronic reader and yet enjoy the smell of books, there is a product called “Smell of Books,” an ‘aerosal e-book enhancer.’ ‘…Smell of Books™ will bring back that real book smell you miss so much’ as you read on your Kindle, iPad, Nook, or other device. Smell of Books™ comes in five bookish aromas: New Book Smell, Classic Musty Smell, Scent of Sensibility, Eau You Have Cats, and Crunchy Bacon Scent.
Ehrenreich is decidedly dualist: the book as object (body) and the book as words (soul) are two separate entities. Yet, For John Milton, the monist, the book is body AND soul, corporeal and spiritual/intellectual, and indivisible. This also explains how the two represent the book as body. If Ehrenreich’s books appear like an elderly and feeble man, Milton’s books are man at his zenith, filled with vitality and energy: “Books are not dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them” (Areopagitica). Books for him become a ‘vial’ of ‘potent’ perfume, all ‘extraction,’ ‘preservation,’ distillation, the very essence of the author’s soul.
Paper Sniffers & Biblionecrophiliacs of the world, unite!