Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The Smell of Books

I can't see myself getting an Amazon Kindle. I like sitting on the couch with a book and a cup of tea, thumbing through the pages, smelling the paper and the ink.

Mark Oehlert's response to Tom Crawford on the Kindle reminded me of a New Yorker article from last month, in which Anthony Grafton concludes that paper books are an anthropological record of their times and of the people reading it. The article is mostly about Google Book Search, the massive project to "build a comprehensive index of all the books in the world." Which I think sounds like a good thing.

But Grafton points out some of the more subtle things that are lost when books are digitized.

FUTURE READING: Digitization and its discontents; Anthony Grafton; November 5, 2007; The New Yorker.

And yet we will still need our libraries and archives. John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid have written of the so-called “social life of information”—the form in which you encounter a text can have a huge impact on how you use it. Original documents reward us for taking the trouble to find them by telling us things that no image can. Duguid describes watching a fellow-historian systematically sniff two-hundred-and-fifty-year-old letters in an archive. By detecting the smell of vinegar—which had been sprinkled, in the eighteenth century, on letters from towns struck by cholera, in the hope of disinfecting them—he could trace the history of disease outbreaks. Historians of the book—a new and growing tribe—read books as scouts read trails. Bindings, usually custom-made in the early centuries of printing, can tell you who owned them and what level of society they belonged to. Marginal annotations, which abounded in the centuries when readers usually went through books with pen in hand, identify the often surprising messages that individuals have found as they read. Many original writers and thinkers—Martin Luther, John Adams, Samuel Taylor Coleridge—have filled their books with notes that are indispensable to understanding their thought. Thousands of forgotten men and women have covered Bibles and prayer books, recipe collections, and political pamphlets with pointing hands, underlining, and notes that give insights into which books mattered, and why. If you want to capture how a book was packaged and what it has meant to the readers who have unwrapped it, you have to look at all the copies you can find, from original manuscripts to cheap reprints. The databases include multiple copies of some titles. But they will never provide all the copies of, say, “The Wealth of Nations” and the early responses it provoked.

Photo Credit: Books by algiamil on stock.exchng


Lovekandinsky said...

Great post, Cammy and I'm completely with you on loving the physical feel of a good book. I doubt that I will ever want to give that up.

At the same time, in regard to annotating books and the insights they give you into the minds of individuals, I think that many of the tools we have now keep the same kinds of records. I think of del.icio.us and diigo for example. The beauty of these is that I can sit at home and from my own desk access the thoughts of potentially millions of people, something that isn't possible with a physical object.

Not that I'm advocating the end of the book--I'm not--but I think that we are actually gaining certain kinds of knowledge and information with our digital versions. Imagine if Martin Luther or John Adams had used diigo. You and I and everyone else on line could access that content, rather than having to go to a library where we may or may not be allowed to hold the book in our hands.

I agree that we'd lose a lot if we didn't have books anymore. But I also think we may be gaining some things.

Cammy Bean said...

But you can't smell the vinegar in del.icio.us!

Donald H Taylor said...


I believe that the printed book will never die. Sadly, though, I believe economics mean it is destined to become a luxury item within 20 years (see below).


I hope that I'm wrong.


Anonymous said...

Cammy, I just found your blog and have enjoyed reading your old and new posts. This one particularly strikes home.

As a kid, I grew up hanging around my Dad's print shop. The smell of fresh ink on the printed page takes me right back there.

Cammy Bean said...

Hey Dave,

Thanks for reading.

Mmm...the smell of a print shop. I imagine that is going the way of the dinosaurs. A few relics will be left to treasure (and sniff!)