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by Charles Cuthbertson

You are most likely reading these words on a computer screen, unencumbered by the weight of wood pulp and cardboard in your hand, and without the potential danger of slicing open your finger as you turn a page. Welcome to the Information Age, kids--a brave new world of strained eyesight and carpal tunnel syndrome. You can now read material as it's being created, or shortly thereafter. You can interact with the authors who transmit words to your terminal, and distract you from, say, getting that presentation on satellite uplinks ready. Perhaps best of all, you can read at work when it looks to everyone else as if you really have your mind on answering that e-mail from the section manager.

However, as you and your computer are becoming better acquainted, take a moment, if you will, to become more familiar with the object in front of you. What do you really know about it? How do you know that this interaction will be the basis for a stimulating relationship? How will you feel when you are done reading--will there be a sense of satisfaction at having completed your latest electronic transaction? Or will you remain emotionally detached from your screen, ambivalent until you need to use it again to download those intriguing pictures of Dana Delaney and/or David Duchovny?

I'll bet you don't even know what your computer SMELLS like. Go ahead, take a whiff. (If someone in the student lab gives you a funny look, tell them you're devising an interactive, nasally-activated e-mail system.) What do you smell? Nothing, right? Well, perhaps there is the tangy odor of a warm monitor, or, if you have to share your computer, the musky trace of the last user's breakfast breath. But, generally, there isn't anything to stimulate the olfactory senses.

Now grab a book. Any book, it doesn't matter what it is. Open it up and plant your nose in the crease. Now breathe deep. What do you smell? A book, right? (Well, DUH, I hear some of you muttering.) But that's just it. Books have smells. Powerful, stimulating smells. Books carry odors as effectively as they do printed words or ink smudges. Books stink, books reek, books are dipped in the perfume of academia and knowledge, books are more refreshing than your average deodorant. Books are all of these things. And that is why books will never perish from the earth, even amid all this electronic gadgetry.

Why do you always see Captain Picard grabbing a handful of wood pulp and cardboard before he sets foot off his ship? Why do we have bookstore shelves full of printed matter when we can just order them off of Amazon? Why risk the threat of some cancer-causing agent contained in book ink? Because, whether you realize it or not, we like the smell of books. Oh sure, there is also the sensory experience of picking up a book and running your face along its spine or hefting it within your palm to see if it's of adequate weight to press your garden flowers with. But take a walk in any bookstore and you'll see aisles of idle individuals picking up books at random and flipping the pages. I maintain that pages are being flipped subconsciously in order to pick up the pleasing scent of paper, ink, glue, and general book-like substances.

Is this behavior learned? Possibly. Is it addictive? Most certainly. Can it be explained by the rational, computer-using mind? I believe so.

In fact, the sniffing of books is an important critical tool. The scent of a book will tell you immediately, based on your response, whether or not that book will be an enjoyable one for you. A bad-smelling book cannot be read. A good smelling book, like fine food, or an expensive perfume, or the paw of a roaming dog (as a poet once noted) will be an object of attraction and pleasure for the capable sniffer. It will also be something you remember with fondness, because of the subconscious satisfaction you received from its smell.

MOBY DICK may or may not be a great novel. But depending on the particular edition you read, it will be a more (or less) positive reading experience for you. How else to explain that readers will absolutely hate a book like MOBY DICK in high school, but (perhaps) come to adore it when read again in adulthood? It's all in the smell. I hated reading Shakespeare in high school because all the plays I read were in this plastic-smelling textbook with a cover that was about 3 inches thick. Now I love Shakespeare, and this is entirely due to the fact that I read the plays only in the comfortably-sized and better smelling paperback format. I have a hard time reading science fiction books from thirty or more years ago because they always smell like they've been hiding in a paper box up in someone's musty attic for thirty or more years. This is, of course, exactly where they've been, and the scent of the rotting book tells me that no one has wanted to read the thing for over a generation.

Do you know people who can tell when it's going to snow just from the scent of the air? The bastards are always right, aren't they? The book-smelling idea works along the same lines. If someone who, perhaps like me, seems slightly unhinged tells you that they can tell a good book just by sniffing it, then you'd better believe them lest you interfere with whatever cosmic force has granted these people their powers. Be aware, however, that book-smelling is a very individualized process. You, for example, may like the smell of the first edition of Howard Stern's PRIVATE PARTS. I found it unreadable. That is, until I came across a well-read paperback copy which smelled like a Butterfinger bar laced with a hint of Big Mac. Now I can't get enough of the damn book.

I teach my writing students the book-smelling theory so that they may better prepare for their other courses. Any required text that doesn't smell good to you, I tell them, means that A) you won't ever be able to complete the required reading for that class; B) you'll eventually fail the course; and C) you'll end up having an unhappy love affair with the instructor in order to get a grade change.

All this can be avoided by simply lifting a book to your nostrils and risking a few odd looks from passers-by. But you'll save a lot of time in doing so, and you'll never care if your computer monitor explodes, because you'll be among the discriminating readers who know the true value of sticking your nose in a book.


Charles Cuthbertson 1997 email :