24 March 2009

Smells Like...Thompson

A certain smell immediately takes my mind back to reading Ruth Plumly Thompson’s Oz novels when I was eleven, discovering what crazy concoction of magic, romance, and chase scenes she'd come up with this time.

I think about that smell whenever I hear people claim that readers are so fond of the aesthetics and sensory experience of reading printed books that digital versions will never replace bound hard copies.

But what I smelled wasn't Oz, or children's literature. I was smelling the rotting of paper made with lots of wood fiber, and the glue that Reilly & Lee used on its cheap bindings of the 1930s. People younger than me who took in Thompson's stories through the Del Rey paperbacks of the 1980s no doubt have a different sensory memory of that experience, one that didn't depend on the books eating themselves away from within.

Yet the stories were the same, with all their ups and downs, strengths and flaws. Our reading memories differ because of many personal circumstances, and the physical format of the book is a minor factor at best. When Thompson did her job, we were immersed in the story, paying little attention to the real world. Digital formats convey that just as well as printed ones.

Similarly, people have been taking in the story of the Trojan War for millennia--in oral form, on scrolls, on handwritten codexes, in multiple printed volumes, and so on. In the middle of the 20th century, many readers consumed The Iliad or Troilis and Cressida from cheaply printed, pulpy books. Now readers are coming to the story in graphic form. The saga has lasted because of its inherent drama and tradition, not because of a particular packaging. The Odyssey is still with us; scrolls are not.

I think of this as I listen to my Humanities Major-classmate Jacob Weisberg speaking on NPR's Talk of the Nation about the aesthetics of digital books. His Microsoft colleagues used to tell him that if the smell of paper and glue was an inherent part of the reading experience, e-book readers could supply that smell. But we're quickly learning that rotting pulp is not necessary for an enjoyable read; it's just a side effect that some of our brains have been conditioned to remember fondly.

4 comments:

Nathan said...

People younger than me who took in Thompson's stories through the Del Rey paperbacks of the 1980s no doubt have a different sensory memory of that experience, one that didn't depend on the books eating themselves away from within.

No, just of weak bindings and bending covers.

J. L. Bell said...

I wonder if Thompson’s Oz novels have ever been issued with strong bindings.

Incidentally, the jargon for the way paperback covers sometimes arc back is “cover curl.” It happens because of the grain of the cover stock, the type of lamination, and heat and humidity. Not a problem when a book is spine out on a shelf, but annoying when you want to display it.

Sam said...

That smell gives me a head ache. I can't read a book that smells like that.

Nor do I really like most of the attributes of a physical book. When reading a long book, for instance, there all sorts of problems with the weight and the spine depending on how far into the book you are.

I read almost exclusively on an e-reader now. No night light needed. No switching positions. No extra weight. No mess left behind by previous readers.

David Maxine said...

I LOVE that smell - it may be bad for the book but the smell of old paper is lovely and romantic. I wonder if Sam is confusing the smell of wood-pulp paper with mildew or mold which can indeed cause headaches.

Alas I think it's sad that Sam doesn't like the attributes of actual books. Good reproduction, the art of the book itself, they true sense or portability and foreverness. But without physical books there is little chance for spontaneous human interaction. Someone can't see what yuo're reading, you can't ponder someone's library in their living room and understand them better, etc.

Last but not least, yes the Thompson books HAVE been issued with strong bindings, on acid-free paper, smyth-sewn cloth bindings, with gilt stamping and pictorial labels, too. Alas they're also written in Russian.