I had a lovely little discussion about this on Facebook over the weekend, so I’m pulling this up into its own post.
Time and time again, in the eternal print vs. digital debate on books, one of the arguments I see the pro-print folks put forth is that ebooks can never replace the smell of an old book for them. People describe how it’s a vanilla-like smell, or in some cases brown-sugar-like. It’s a real and measurable phenonemon; it’s been studied! And intellectually, I certainly understand why people connect with it so strongly. It’s also a real and measurable phenomenon that people develop emotional attachments to smells, and certainly, I very much understand how a treasured book creates an emotional attachment.
But the smell thing? That doesn’t happen with me. Mostly, when I smell an old book, I have to fight off the urge to sneeze. Old books smell like dust to me, not like vanilla or brown sugar. Dara tells me it doesn’t happen with her, either. It makes me wonder if there’s a genetic thing going on here, like how cilantro tastes like battery acid to Dara.
Because as far as I can tell, my sense of smell isn’t particularly impaired. There are lots of smells I find pleasurable: tasty things baking, the smell of the ocean, wood crackling in a fireplace, the rosemary-and-lavender blend I like to use in my bubble bath. I do not, however, tend to form emotional attachments to smells. So I’m lacking one of the big factors I see cited on the print side of print vs. digital.
One of the folks in my Facebook discussion said she always thought of Giles in an early episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “I, Robot”:
Jenny Calendar: Honestly, what is it about them that bothers you so much?
Giles: The smell.
Jenny Calendar: Computers don’t smell, Rupert.
Giles: I know. Smell is the most powerful trigger to the memory there is. A certain flower, or a-a whiff of smoke can bring up experiences long forgotten. Books smell musty and-and-and rich. The knowledge gained from a computer is a – it, uh, it has no-no texture, no-no context. It’s-it’s there and then it’s gone. If it’s to last, then-then the getting of knowledge should be, uh, tangible, it should be, um, smelly.
Me, I always think of the Star Trek TOS series episode “Court Martial”:
Cogley: Books, young man, books. Thousands of them. If time wasn’t so important, I’d show you something. My library. Thousands of books.
Captain James T. Kirk: And what would be the point?
Cogley: This is where the law is. Not in that homogenized, pasteurized synthesizer.
With powerful quotes like this in our pop culture references, honestly, I can’t blame my fellow book aficiandos for being so passionate about books as physical objects. Our culture does value them, and rightly so–though I could also argue that it doesn’t value them nearly as much as it should.
For me, though, the value and emotional attachment is not in the physical object, no matter how good it smells.
For me, Cogley and Giles are wrong. It’s the content of the books, their knowledge, their stories, that create the emotional attachment for me.
That is, indeed, the entire point of a book.