I try to begin every literature class I teach with the following instruction: smell your books. Most of my students, upon hearing this, look at me either in disbelief, dread, amusement, or some combination of all three. Some of my colleagues have made this particular instruction of mine into a joke that they believe proves that teachers in the humanities are slightly crazy and that we teach our students very little of value for the real world.
As a professor of literature I want my students’ first impression of the texts we read in class to be olfactory. I want them to discover the sensuality of books that comes across most strongly in their scent. It’s the scent of books, their perfume, which can serve as a point of entry into the wonderful and exotic world of the book. A book’s perfume can also change the way we think about the physical book and thus its future. An electronic book has no scent. When we download it onto our eReaders we getting the text and that’s about it. The experience is not, nor was it meant to be, the same. Although we can get the same pleasure from reading a novel on an eReader as we get from holding the physical book, the experience is nonetheless restricted to the pleasure of the story. What’s missing with the eBook is the soul of the book itself.
Have you ever walked into a used bookstore? The perfume is intoxicating, as every lover of books already knows. Used books stores provide the best place in which to experience the power of books. This cannot be experienced in today’s new bookstores, either the chains or the independents. Increasingly, new bookstores have a café attached to them, thereby masking the perfume of books with the overpowering scent of coffee and baked goods. Although I find the combination of coffee and books to be heavenly, I miss the perfume of books when I walk into a new bookstore. The experience of walking into a used bookstore is Proustian. When I was a child my mother used to take me to a used bookstore called Lescron. Founded in the 1960s by Brooklyn native Bert Rosenbaum, Lescron became a well-known used bookstore chain in upstate New York specializing in remaindered books. Some of my fondest childhood memories come from our visits there, and I can still recall the perfume of the store as we opened the door and walked in.
The physical book is something that has a life of its own. Although the stories themselves are the essential souls of the books, the physical book, the feel of it in one’s hands, the design of the cover, the font, and cut of the paper, can be just as important. The most treasured book in my library is Jorge Luis Borges’s The Library of Babel with etchings by Erick Desmaziéres and published by David R. Godine. Although the book is not old (it was published in 2000), it is a work of art. I won’t talk about the story here, but “The Library of Babel” is one of Borges’s most famous stories, and it lends itself wonderfully to myriad interpretations. So why is this edition so special? The etchings by Desmaziéres add a wonderful dimension to the story. In addition, the particular scent of this book is almost woodsy. Printed on acid-free paper and set in Monotype Dante, the edition is a real work of art.
Books are not dead things, nor are they products to be made into pulp once they have outlived their use-value. In fact, the use-value of books is priceless for those of us who are a part of the cult of the book. I had a conversation with a colleague not long ago about the physical vs. eBook debate. She argued that getting rid of physical books and going completely to eBooks would help save the environment by cutting down on the amount of paper used to produce books. I was horrified that she would make such a suggestion. I can no more think of my life without books than think of myself without limbs. Our home libraries, and the perfume that accompanies those libraries, become essential parts of our personalities that cannot be replaced by the eBook and the collection of books on our eReaders. Each physical book has its own personality, its own life. Taken together, our personal libraries may say more about us than anything else.
Once the perfume of books seeps into one’s skin, it’s impossible to get rid of it. The symptoms caused by this exposure can send one into debilitating states of delusion, as well as cause us to neglect our loved ones and professional obligations. It can surely raise the risk of bankruptcy and neglect of personal hygiene. All in all, the perfume of books is like a magic spell that, at least in my world, very few are able to ward off. I, for one, am happy to be under its spell.