Books should be smelly

I’ve a love affair with books. Granted, I haven’t really had time to delve into literature as extensively as I’d like since pre-IB times. Partly because of the incessant guilt that comes with chronic workaholism, but also because intellectual stimuli following the Norwegian educational system (the quality of which I’m happy to go on and on about on a more suitable platform) became so much more appealing that I no longer needed to escape elsewhere for brain food.

I’ve such ambivalence tending towards the negative end when it comes to ebooks. While I, in Don Norman’s Emotional Design framework terminology, can reflect on the benefits of the technology, such as their portability, environmental friendliness, and functionality in terms of annotations and readability, they don’t appeal to me viscerally, in the same way books (of the actual, tangible, paper-based kind) do.

In Emotional Design, Don Norman argues that emotional processing occurs on three levels which can be applied to elicit affect in design:

  1. Visceral: subconscious, immediate processing of sensory stimuli from the product
  2. Behavioural: conscious management of common tasks and behaviours related to the product
  3. Reflective: conscious reflection and integration of experiences with a product.

So how do books appeal to me viscerally?


I love the coarseness between my fingers when I flip a page and how, on certain really old books, you can feel the indentation of the ink for each letter. When holding the book in both hands, the difference between the thickness in each hand tells me how far into the story I am.


My stacked book shelf has become the physical embodiment of the literature I’ve read (and, err, have yet to read), of the knowledge I posses, and of my interests and taste in art, culture, politics, philosophy, and history. A growing library of read and unread books to me symbolises a growing mind and growing curiosity.

Wear and tear

While I may freak out over invisible scratches on my dSLR, it’s the opposite with books: every crease, stain and scribble tells a story of my history with the book, acting as triggers of memory. The beer stains on my copy of Pride and Prejudice brings me back to sitting on the grass outside a The Strokes concert, queuing up for Placebo at Roskilde in 2006.


As so eloquently put by Rupert Giles,

Smell is the most powerful trigger to the memory there is. A certain flower, or a-a whiff of smoke can bring up experiences long forgotten. Books smell musty and-and-and rich. The knowledge gained from a computer is a – it, uh, it has no-no texture, no-no context. It’s-it’s there and then it’s gone. If it’s to last, then-then the getting of knowledge should be, uh, tangible, it should be, um, smelly.

Library books smell old and dusty, holiday books smell like sand and sunscreen, new books smell like wine stains waiting to happen.

Ebooks might tell stories – but they don’t tell my stories.

That being said, Norman also argues that the reflective level of emotional processing may inhibit the visceral level. Perhaps I’ll some day wake up and realise that ebooks make so much more sense than paper-based books. I suppose that would make moving houses a whole lot easier.

In the meantime, this might help things, at least slightly, for old skool people like me:


6 thoughts on “Books should be smelly

  1. Eg er så einig som det er mogleg å verte! Vart glad av å lese dette og følte ekstra kjærleik for alle bøkene mine, særleg dei som er nærmare 200 år gamle og som er så utruleg mykje meir enn historia/historiene dei inneheld.

  2. I love both. Although I love both my smelly and non-smelly books, I also love my Kindle. Mostly (though, because of its practicality: not having to carry around five thick books when travelling is immensely relieving, albeit mostly for my back. It’s so handy, and it means I can bring 50 different books with me wherever I go. Plus, new gadgets = always fun!
    Buut I’m far from ready to give up my paperbacks and hardbacks.. which my bookshelves reflect quite obviously. I’ve never had as many books as I do now, and they just keep getting more.

    1. Oh yes, the Kindle and similar devices really are incredible things in terms of practicality and technical innovation! Nothing is as annoying has permanently bending your spine from all the books you have to carry around. I think the emotional relationship a lot of people have to the vintageness of books is still lacking when it comes to ebooks, though. It’ll be interesting to see how it develops.

      1. I agree. Although I like my Kindle, it’s far from achieving the same status as my copy of Heavier Than Heaven, for instance. But yes, it will be interesting to see the development! (fun fact: I got my Kindle for my birthday last year. In December, my dad got one for his birthday. Now my brother is getting one for his birthday, and my mum will probably get one for her birthday in June as well.. The love of practicality is seemingly contagious)

  3. I do like physical books too, but their appeal is somewhat lessened when you realise that the smell is primarily from the dead skin cells of the previous reader(s).

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