Physical Books: Reading, Sniffing, and Torturing

Mmmm… doesn’t that smell good?

I have a piece of flash fiction that was just published today in the December issue of The Washington Pastime. Wee! I love it, have always loved it, and am very happy that it found such a lovely new home. My story is called, “The Book Sniffers,” and can be found on lucky page thirteen. *thumbs up*

As you might gather from that title, I enjoy sniffing books. A lot. In fact, I occasionally go to libraries and used book stores just to browse the aisles and sniff. And I’m not the only one. Turns out there’s a chemical reason for that delicious old book odor:

“Lignin, the stuff that prevents all trees from adopting the weeping habit, is a polymer made up of units that are closely related to vanillin. When made into paper and stored for years, it breaks down and smells good. Which is how divine providence has arranged for secondhand bookstores to smell like good quality vanilla absolute, subliminally stoking a hunger for knowledge in all of us.” –from Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez’s Perfumes: the guide

So I’m not *totally* crazy. (Yeah, okay – I am.)

Even teh kittehs want in on teh actshun.

I like to think of physical books as candles: what’s the point of having them if you’re afraid to use them? Some people will buy candles that are so pretty that they never burn them. I’ve never really understood that. To me, a candle (like a book) is a functional thing. Pretty? Sure… while you’re using it. Key word = “using.” Neither are meant to live on a shrine.

Uh-oh. I’ll have to break the glass to sniff that bad boy.

My dad used to hate it when people broke the spines on his books. He didn’t like that white line that went through the title. But how are you going to read comfortably if you’re only holding your book open at a 90 degree angle? I tried to be careful when I borrowed books from him, but when I bought my own, you better believe the first thing I did was crack that sucker open. I love the sound of a book spine breaking for the first time. Makes me feel like an officer of the Spanish Inquisition.

I love torturing books.

Check out this book weight. I use it almost every single day of my life. If someone found this in my bedside table, unexplained, they would surely think it was… well… something saucy.

Drop your pants and spread ‘em, book.

And that’s not all. I shamelessly dog-ear corners if I lose my bookmark. I clasp pages open with clothespins at the gym. I splatter soup on pages while using my bookstand. I take off book jackets completely. My cats chew the corners of hardbacks. I tote little paperbacks in my purse. I mark up the margins like I’m still in college. I show my books no mercy, and they love it.

Please, Miss, can I have some more?

Because honestly, what’s the point of having a book if you’re afraid to use it? To really get in there and – forgive me – abuse it with glee? With the rise of e-readers, physical books have become even more of a treasure to me. I don’t have anything against ebooks; my husband has an iPad and I’ve read a couple of books on there and liked it just fine. But there are things a physical book can give you that a screen just can’t. The main thing being an experience.

This screen just smells like cogs and finger smudges.

[Side note. Did you read about Ray Bradbury releasing Farenheit 451 as an ebook? Ironic. Almost as ironic as “The Book Sniffers” coming out through digital publishing.]

No doubt times are a-changin’. And even as a physical book fanatic, I think that’s okay. I, for one, will still teach my kids and grandkids the love of a good, hardcover book, just as my mother taught me. And come to think of it, my Gammy always said an unburned candle is tacky, tacky, tacky. So crack a spine, torture a book, read it, for God’s sake… and really get in there and sniff.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your opinions and stories, book lovers! What’s your favorite book memory? Do you value physical books? Will you always? How do you treat them, and why?

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  • Caitlin

    My favorite book from my teenage years is falling apart. I recently leant it to my sister and she thought she had lost it. Luckily, it was later recovered but for a while I was really depressed to think that I might never see that copy again. I could have bought another copy but it wouldn’t have had the same sentimental value.

    • Oh my gosh, I remember that book well. You leant me that same copy at one point, along with almost all of our other girlfriends. It’s actually a miracle that you didn’t lose it long ago. But I’m glad your sister found it. That would be a heartbreaker.

  • Lura Slowinski

    Hahaha, my husband uses the same excuse when I ask him why he’s broken the spine on my books! Yep, I’m one of *those* people. I examine the book in the store to make sure it’s in pristine condition (which means never ever taking the book on top of the pile on a table), and I’m careful when I put it in my bag so the covers don’t get bent. And as far as broken spines go, I haven’t broken one since elementary school, even with my predilection toward 1000 pagers. People are always amazed when they see a book I finished reading, because it could be put back on a shelf and sold again.

    I don’t actually have a good reason to be so anal. About the broken spines, I hate that when the spine breaks the book always wants to open to that place. How do you flip through it later on if it just falls to the same pages? But other than it’s probably some weird OCD thing.

    I don’t stick my nose in books and inhale so much anymore, but I was a hardcore book sniffer as a kid. Ahh….

    • Hehe, this is cute! You obviously cherish physical books too. Isn’t it interesting that the same reverence can be shown in such opposite ways? I can totally understand why you treat them so carefully. In fact, being as OCD as I am, it’s kind of surprising that I’m not like this instead of how I am. Intriguing. =)

  • This post is wonderful! Funny, and yet so true. You are so mean to your books, but if that’s the way you get enjoyment out of them, then that’s the way it should be.

    I love old books. They’re already broken in and worn with awesome old covers on them. Sometimes I find inscriptions inside them and wonder about the person the book belonged to and who gave it to them.

    But I have no more room for more books. 🙁 So that’s part of the reason I’m going for ebooks. It isn’t exactly the same though. I like being able to flip through books and revisit passages, and I can’t easily do that with my ereader. (It’s just a basic Kobo, no book marking, highlighting, annotation features at all.)

    In the end, it doesn’t matter how I’m reading a book. When I start to read, and get really engrossed in a book, I’m not even there anymore anyway. I’m completely inside this other world, watching the story unfold. Over the years, I’ve learned that I’m more of a big picture type person. So I read a story in one large gulp and think about it afterwards.

    • Thanks Nina! Oh my gosh, I love finding old inscriptions in books! I forget a lot, but I try to sign the books I give to people for that very reason. =)

      I don’t think I’ll ever run out of room for more physical books. We have 8 bookshelves in our house and I want more. The good thing, to me, is that I think books & shelves make lovely decor. I wouldn’t mind having them on almost every wall. And someday I’d love to have a “library” room with floor to ceiling shelves. (Hey, a girl can dream.)

      But you’re right: if a book is really, really good, it doesn’t matter what medium you’re reading it in. There’s something magic about getting caught up in it like that.

  • 83October

    I love this post! You’ve touched a cord.
    Being an avid reader, I do the same thing of sniffing books in the library or in the bookstore. There’s something incredibly wonderful about the feel of pages under my finger tips and the smell of paper and binding. Like you, I believe books should be used. I don’t care much about the creases on the spine. My books are cared for, but they show the sign of being used and loved. Except maybe I’m a big bookmark user, so no ear marks.

    Reading was an ordeal growing up as most books were in English and I wasn’t the most avid learner of the language. But in Fifth grade I came across these rows of Nancy Drew in the school library. I picked one up and I was hooked. I started to enjoy the English language and books. From Nancy Drew I graduated to the classics such as Little Women and Secret Garden.

    Physical books to me tell a story. It tells you how far you’ve journey, how old books are and how many times you’ve read it. As much as it tells you that you’ve read so much, it also tells you how you’ve grown and how you’ve loved certain books. I have nothing against e-readers, but I can’t even stand reading books through my laptop….

    • Lovely! I used to love Nancy Drew too. =) I could read about other people loving books all day long. Even reading your nostalgia made me nostalgic! Thanks 83.

  • Having officially finished reading three rather long novels on my brand new Kindle, I can begin to compare the differences. I wouldn’t say the experience of *reading* felt all that different. But in the same breath I will tell you, I have no intention of buying my two favourite books in e-book format, because I want to read those babies with paper in-hand. So I could almost say reading an e-book is a little like a fun fling, you still enjoy yourself, but there’s no dedication involved. Reading a physical book, though, that’s a long-term commitment. You’ll come back again and again, not for the fun stuff (in this case, the story), but for the incidentals; cuddling, sipping coffee together, laughing while you make a mess of things… XD

    For the record, I never abuse the pages intentionally. No folding, no dog ears, and absolutely NEVER EVER ANY WRITING on the page! They do get stained and worn from me eating/drinking with the book, though. And from being carried around in bags, or slept on (seriously).


    • I agree with you; e-readers get the deed done just fine. And I like your analogy of relationships. That’s really true: if I love a book, I want a hardcopy around for going back to later. I’ve even bought books that I checked out for free at the library because I knew I would want to have them again later and I wanted to support the author.

      And I might have been exaggerating just slightly on the level of abuse I give my books. I only make notes in literary books that require a lot of deep thought. Although I have been tempted to correct typos before (lol). And I can honestly say I’ve never fallen asleep on a book. I’ve never been a person who falls asleep accidentally, so I always put my book away and intentionally go to bed. I’m picturing a scene like Drew Barrymore’s character in Never Been Kissed where you wake up with the book’s ink stamped across your face. =)~

  • Katy

    You can always tell how much I loved the book by how it looks. Not because they’re perfect, but if the book is some gnarled mess of a book with bent corners, a half-ripped-off back cover, countless bent on the front cover, and a spine so cracked you can barely tell what the title is, that’s when you can tell I truly loved a book. That demonstrates how many times I gripped the cover with tension, threw it against the floor with anger because the MC simply wasn’t listening to my suggestions (we’ve all talked to our books–don’t even say you haven’t), I was worried because someone was getting attacked by zombies/monsters/military, or I slammed the book shut because two characters were *that* close to finally getting together but didn’t. If I don’t enjoy a book very much, that’s when the covers are neat and clean because I didn’t care enough about the characters or what would happen to them.

    And it doesn’t help that I’ve always had this little nervous tick. I always have to be doing something with my hands–and books normally pay the price.

    • I’m the same way! You can tell which books I’ve re-read by which ones have the most creased, whited-out spines. And if I really, really loved it it gets notations and dog ears the second and third time around. 🙂