The Smell of Reading: Kindling the Word

It’s about time I came clean: I, Adam Palay, own—and regularly use—an Amazon Kindle.

Hold on to your knees, readers. As your faithful “art and science” columnist, I hereby present my obligatory will-technology-destroy-literature? column.

I was once myself skeptical of e-readers. I’m an English concentrator. I’m a member of the Advocate. I sport pretentious, thick-rimmed, tortoise-shell frames. Both my bookcase and my roommate’s overflow with my books. Books are an important part of my life—not just the words, but the things themselves. My family’s copy of “The Hobbit” has its cover ripped off, because my dad was afraid its representation of Bilbo would discolor the picture my imagination would paint of him. I’ll never write over the annotations I made in my copy of “King Lear” from high school, the book that made me fall in love with Shakespeare. I never travel without my copy of Wallace Stevens’s collected poems, in case I find myself stuck on a desert island (with adequate food and fresh water) for the rest of my life.

These books, and many others, have a sentimental value as objects that e-readers will never replace.

I say this all up front, because I want to make this clear: the sentimental value of books, while important in its own right, is not a valid argument against e-readers.


Polemics against e-readers almost always end up citing the feel of the book in your hands, and, weirdly enough, the way that books smell. In the November/December issue of the Boston Review, Onnesha Roychoudhuri opens her article “Books After Amazon” with just this rhetorical move: “I am unsure of where I fall on the Luddite spectrum, but I’ll admit to inhaling the odor of leather-bound volumes.”

This olfactory fixation on books is paradigmatic of the central flaw in this sentimentalist’s line of argument: correlation does not imply causation. We love the smell of books because we love the time we spend reading, which usually involves (especially for those of us for whom the activity has caused near-sightedness) breathing through a nose pressed closely to the pages of books. Subconsciously, the smell of the book becomes correlated with the pleasure of reading about hobbits stealing gold from ferocious dragons, so that each time we crack open a musty old volume, that old pleasure steals through us once again.

We love the smell of books because we love reading, not because we love books.

The problem with the e-book debate is that it is distracts us from what reading really means to us by drawing our attention away from words and toward the medium that conveys the words. We cease to speak in terms of what is said, and revert to such absurdities as smells in lieu of rational defense. We point to the smoke, and not the fire, as the source of light and heat.

Books will always be better at some things. You can’t lend out e-books to friends the same way you can lend out books. They don’t yet well convey the visual effects of modern poetry. It’s not as satisfying to throw them at the wall in a fit of anger. But the Kindle and other e-readers remind us that words aren’t bound to media. The need to experience the transformative power of language runs much deeper than the need to make and hold bound pages. Literature has a profound oral tradition; you could argue that old books of poems are analogous to sheet music: they only become art when distilled into sound. When you recite a poem, even alone, you watch the room become enchanted.

Yet somehow we have become attached to the book. Roychoudhuri’s article spells out the evils of Amazon’s business practices toward publishers, some of which indeed are quite abhorrent. Amazon should cut publishers a fair deal. E-books are pure profit, and no one should be unfairly compensated. But we need to take a good, hard look in the mirror. Every external condition of reading—from the smell of old pages to publishing houses’ wellbeing—draws its value from the mysterious act of the imagination that occurs when the mind comes into contact with words and stories. All the trouble we go through, all the money we spend, is a residual effect of this intangible, fundamentally human act.

E-readers are valuable because they free us from the tyranny of the page. Words are not merely marks on acid-free paper, but are, as Steven Pinker titles one of his books, the very “stuff of thought.” When you memorize a poem, it acts on you in ways that just reading it won’t. It invades you like a virus attacking a cell.

Reading on a Kindle these past two months has brought me closer to what I love so much about reading: those long, uninterrupted spells in which the imagination supersedes reality.

I’m even beginning to love the way it smells.

—Columnist Adam L. Palay can be reached at


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