As I write this, I’m visiting my aunt. She has a respectable number of books, many of them paperbacks dating from the 1940s – 60s. I opened one up to look at it this morning and got a flush of memory. The smell of that book–the old, yellowing, not-acid-free, paper, took me back to my childhood, when I’d peek into my parents’ paperbacks (with the stunningly garish 1950s covers, or the designy-moderne 1960s covers) and that smell would rise up. It’s a smell I respond to pretty primally: it’s books, and story, and hours of being taken away to Another Place. One whiff and I’m on Trafalmadore or the deck of the Dawn Treader or in the Marches’ parlor reading a letter from the Front.
My first five books were paperback originals. When I open one up it’s got a slight yellowing along the edges, although the interior of the pages are often creamy white. I suppose the paper being used in my books in the 1980s was different from the stuff used in the early days of paperbacks, but every time I open one up I expect that bloom of dusty scent. It’s a mark of…I dunno. A grownup book? A book from long ago? If my books don’t have that smell yet, I think it’s safe to think that they just won’t.
And of course, ebooks will never have that specific smell.
I love my e-reader, which goes everywhere with me and never ceases to supply story and information (as long as I keep it charged–there’s nothing worse than getting half way through the commute and running out of charge!). I probably spend more money on books now than I did even before I got my Nook…it’s so easy to think “Gee, I haven’t read House of Mirth,” and just buy and start reading. I can replace my soft, floppy paperback copies of the complete work of Dorothy L. Sayers and clear out a linear foot of shelf space. There’s a lot to love, but I miss that smell, and the feel of crisp new paper, and later the feel and scent of soft velvety, musty old paper. I feel just a little sad that none of my books, from this point on, will ever have quite that same deep yellowing on the edges, or feel as soft to the touch as a pair of well-worn jeans.
It’s a small price to pay for progress, I know. And my last five books (including Sold for Endless Rue, coming to a bookstore near you in two days, not that I’m excited or anything) were published as hardcovers or (in one case) as a trade paperback. So from the get-go, the paper and its smell and look and feel are different. And books in electronic format have none of that tactile thrill at all. The content, which is the important thing, is all there. But the sensation of reading that took me away from the world when I was small, that immersed me in other lives and other places, is only present in my memory, a whiff of softness and dust.