In my adventures in digital publishing, one meme I find perpetuating with increasing strength is the idea that one of the things that sets books apart from their electronic counterparts is their smell. You may have even found yourself cracking open a copy of…let’s say Joyce…and taking a good whiff of the pulp deep down near the spine. So deeply ingrained is this idea in the bookish community that at if:book we have come up with the most logical conclusion. If the smell of books holds such a strong appeal, then we should bottle it.
Odeur des Livres takes its essence from the rarest of mould spores collected from flood affected libraries, aged oak pulp, and the highest quality offset lithographic ink, all washed in the tears of Borders executives and distilled and reduced to a perfect tincture.
No sooner had we come up with this, we discovered someone out there is already selling the smell of books in aerosol form. This stuff really exists.
Can we make a promise to ourselves? Can we get over this?
If the smell of books was that intoxicating, we’d dispense with reading altogether and just wander libraries, running our noses along the shelves. Bookshops would pump out Odeur des livres from their entrance, like cinemas do with popcorn. Connoisseurs would bore each other with detailed analyses of variations by region or era.
Books have many amazing qualities as an incredibly efficient and proven means of storing ideas, knowledge, and stories. They are not a vehicle for transporting odour, although some of them may do so inadvertently.
So what’s really going on here?
Referring to the smell of books is an emotional tug, designed to appeal to bibliophiles anxious that their preferred medium might be vanishing. Once it might have been a useful analogy. Now it’s just a lazy cliché.
I’m wondering if we need to create a digital publishing version of Godwin’s Law. Mike Godwin said:
As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.
In other words, given enough time, in any online discussion—regardless of topic or scope— someone inevitably criticises a point made in the discussion by comparing it to beliefs held by Hitler and the Nazis. Further to this, many believe that by invoking Godwin’s Law, all debate instantly ceases and the person who uttered the H or the N word instantly loses the argument.
So, applying this to digital publishing, the if:book Law says:
The point at which someone references the smell of books is the point at which all rational discussion has ended. At best you could wait half an hour and come back, but probably better just to get on with your life.