The Smell of a New Book: Lost to Progress?

Publishing

Print is dead. We've been warned about this for years. I can trace back my anxiety over the impending death of paper books to at least 2007, when I drafted this master plan to my friend Vincenzo (sent via email, ironically enough):

 

There must be some way to ensure preservation of the printed word ... As far as I can tell, sense of smell is one of the only things that modern computers aren't equipped to deal with. So basically all we need to do is start writing books / re-releasing the classics with scratch-and-sniff plot points. Let's see computers try to waft the smell of salty ocean spray as readers peruse Moby Dick!!

 

While Vincenzo ceded that the idea was “brilliant” (what are friends for but to encourage our delusions?), he also pointed out that there would be nothing cheap or easy about making a smell-o-book. I suppose it might have been an ill-fated idea to begin with—they tried smells with movies in the fifties, after all, and how far did that get them?

 

(Although I, for one, remain stubbornly convinced that Smell-O-Vision isn't a doomed idea. If people are willing to wear silly glasses for 3D, what’s to stop us from introducing the cinematic nosebag? Smell-O-Vision. Look it up. It’s my favourite Wikipedia article of all time.)

Tangents aside, amidst the more murky complaints that reading e-books isn’t quite “the same,” smell is a very tangible thing that e-readers take away from the reading experience. Who hasn’t ever pressed their nose into a newly discovered book? Is this a memory we’ll be raving about to our uncomprehending grandchildren?

The Look of Books

I’ve heard it said lately that bookshelves are becoming less and less functional, increasingly decorative—is decoration where books are headed? There’s definitely something visually impressive about a library. In the years we’ve been friends (and when not coming up with brilliant plans to save the printed book), Vincenzo and I have frequently fantasized about our future libraries. For example, he assures me that his will have rolling ladders and secret passageways; for mine, I envision nooks and caves with bookshelf-walls and plant-shaped lights on bending stalks. What will happen to our dreams if all future reading material comes to us in .epub format?

 

There’s just a certain aesthetic to the presence of many, many books. It’s not only the rows of organized colour and texture hitting on our biochemical human affinity for patterns—it’s also the more psychological sense that we’re surrounded by brimming ideas. It’s downright inspiring. (Or maybe we just want to impress our friends.)

 

But if we do start to replace our libraries with e-books, we may need to be increasingly creative with the mountains of paper books left behind—like turning them into actual mountains, perhaps? (See: This mind-boggling artwork that’s been making the Facebook rounds: http://www.visualnews.com/2011/12/22/mountains-of-books-become-mountains/)

 

Similarly, the Quill & Quire blog recently wrote about “repurposing” our beloved old volumes (http://www.quillandquire.com/blog/index.php/2012/01/09/repurposing-old-books-or-just-reading-them/).  These topics are clearly on people’s minds of late, and Internet commenters seem to have a split reaction: either enthusiasm or straight-up nausea—and sometimes a combination of the two.

We’re attached to our books. They hit us in an emotional place, not just in our noses, and their destruction is painful. Yet there is something breathtakingly beautiful about those book mountains. It’s inescapable that as we move forward, a lot of physical books are going to be left behind. I just hope the copies I’ve loved are as lucky as the ones in Guy Laramée’s work—to inspire in a new way, and find a new life in art.