Sunday, July 25, 2010


Books, using all the senses

In 1999, the radio show This American Life broadcast an episode called The Book that Changed Your Life. The episode was re-aired a while ago, and I recently got to listening to the podcast of it — I save them on my BlackBerry, and I have a bunch yet to hear.

One of the segments is about a guy called Roger, a construction worker who decided to collect — at great expense — journals of and books about the explorers Lewis and Clark. In case you listen to the audio stream, the segment starts about 26 minutes into it. About 31 minutes in, Roger has this to say:

When you get something, 18th, 19th century... you open up the book, and you look at the discoloration of the pages, and the smell, and that’s when you really feel the true energy of history. Not what you would read, but you’ve got more senses than just your eyes. You can smell, you can feel, you can touch.

Indeed: this is what I miss when I read things electronically, and it’s why I still like books, and will always like books.

Books are more than the words that are in them. Roger talks about more than eyes, but it’s eyes as well, seeing the book as a book, looking at the cover and the pages. There’s the slightly musty smell of an old library, with aging, worn paper. You feel the pages as you turn them, and hear the shuffling and crinkling of the pages, not as a digital sound effect, but as something real, there in front of you. For taste, well, unless you’re 18 months old and everything goes in your mouth, we’ll have to add a cup of tea to sip while you read. I guess we could do that with digital, as well as with paper.

I hope we never lose the books. There are advantages to digital versions, when you want to search, or when you need to keep a lot of verbal material in a small footprint. But nothing can replace sitting in a comfortable chair in a well lit corner of a dimly lit room... and seeing, feeling, smelling, and hearing a real book.


Nathaniel Borenstein said...

Clearly we need a little USB device that emits the smell of old books.

HRH said...

Perhaps we should apply an older technology, like RS232 to emit old smells:-)

The Ridger, FCD said...

While all that may be true of old books, I find a miss nothing when I read a novel on my Kindle. It's funny, because I resisted getting one for a long time precisely because I felt that some important something would be lost. Now? I wouldn't be without it. Whatever intangible (tangible?) things are lost are either not missed at all or easily made up for in the sheer covenience of having so many books right there in one, lightweight, easy-to-read device.