Why Do We Care What a Book Smells Like?

There is this moment when you walk into a Home Depot and you’re hit with the amazing aroma of lumber. I can’t describe why the odor of dead trees resonates with me so much, but I know it has an effect on me every time I enter the store. In fact, I don’t want to know. I don’t want a logical explanation. I’m sure there has been a study done (and most likely a government grant) on why smell of lumber has this effect on people. Personally, it reminds me of being a kid, and the numerous visits my parents would make to hardware and lumber stores while they renovated the small farmhouse we lived in.

There seems to be a universal understanding that odors have a direct connection to memory, and for that matter, time. There was a period of time in my youth when I was quite sick, and my parents bought me a Star Wars book called The Art of Star Wars to pass the time. My mother was a Lysol evangelist, and would spray anything and everything when I was sick with the disinfectant. To this day, when I smell Lysol, I think vividly of that book.

There are many reasons why people say they love physical books, and there are numerous studies that will break down the benefits of reading physical, reflective, substances like paper over a transmissive, light-emitting, screen. However, I don’t want to concentrate on something so qualitative as that. I’m not interested in winning an argument, or converting someone to physical books. It’s like arguing with someone about smoking; you can quote statistics all day long, but it doesn’t answer why people like to smoke, and many do.

When inquiring as to why people like physical books, inevitably that discussion makes reference to odors, which inevitably links to a memory. There are different types of book odors people describe. Some love the smell of ink in a freshly printed book. I can’t tell you how often I accompanied my wife (an avid bibliophile is putting it mildly) to a midnight release of a Harry Potter book, and the first thing I would see a person do when handed a new book is smell the book and smile.

Others seek out the smell of used books. I saw a documentary years ago on JRR Tolkien and his effect on the literary landscape of the 1960’s, a time when Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series was only available to those who were able to find the series in imported boxes of used books. One of the commentators in the documentary kept referring to the odor of the books he would search through, and how the musty smell of a used book store always reminds him of that day in his youth when he was finally able to find Fellowship of the Ring. For him, that memory of youth and discovery is embedded with the odor of used books.

Even those who I know that are hard-line ebook consumers have a stash of prized books on display in their house. There is always a reason for keeping the books, and often they have nothing to do with the story within the pages, but rather a story relating to the person who owns the book. They associate the feeling of being pregnant with their first child with a copy of The First Wives Club. They associate being deployed to Iraq with a ragged paperback version of Dr. No they carried with them. The Hunger Games reminds another of the sleepless night they read the book while sitting in a chair next to their mother’s hospital bed the night she died.

It’s this strong connection between a physical copy of a book and memory that I find so fascinating. It goes even farther than that, being the physical book, the story, and the memory of who a person was and what they were experiencing when they read it.

So what about ebooks? There are benefits to ebooks. Right now I have all of Stephen King’s library on a single Kindle, along with audio versions of many of those same books. I have the same files on all of my mobile devices as well. The stories are the same, so why have I insisted on owning the physical books as well?

According to a 2016 Pew Research Center study, out of the 73% of Americans who have read a book in the last twelve months, 65% read printed books. Despite the proliferation of ebooks and readers, only 28% read any form of ebook over the last twelve months, under half of those who chose printed materials.

A recurring idea is that digital, in it’s everlasting permanence and duplicability, is viewed by most people as a fleeting format. The truth is most people believe digital media will eventually become obsolete. Not as a whole, but individual digital formats.

And why shouldn’t they? Most adults have lived through the advent and death of vinyl, 8 track, cassette, compact disc, Beta, VHS, Laserdisc, DVD, and BlueRay. Why wouldn’t they assume that the ebooks they buy today will be useless files in the next decade? That 8 track your parents saved when they were dating is a nice memory, but useless to you as a connection to them. However, that physical copy of Watership Down your mother read when she was pregnant with you will mean something to you when you’re pregnant with your own child. According Jeremy Greenfield of Digital Book World, nearly three-quarters of parents and children surveyed prefer to read physical books over equivalent ebooks. Greenfield cites a study by the Joan Gantz Cooney Center which concluded that children retain more information when presented with physical books during key developmental stages.

So why does it matter that we care about how a book smells? It matters because we experience media with more than just one of our senses, and we tend to attach memory and meaning to those experiences. Yes, a digital version of Catcher in the Rye is the same story you read in class when you were sixteen, but the book, which has become worn and tattered, musty, annotated, tapped back together, and survived the same moves, girlfriends or boyfriends, children, and marriages, is more akin to who you are.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Mark Cela’s story.