And non-fiction doesn't
Shortly after moving to Minneapolis, I noticed a shop in our new neighborhood that seemed to be a stationary store. Always in search of paper to snack on, I stopped by, only to discover that the entire premises of Frostbeard Studios was actually dedicated to book smelling: specifically, book-scented candles. Inside the building, most of the square footage housed a candle-making and shipping warehouse. At the entry, a display of merchandise featured a line of candles with scents like “Old Books” (fragrance notes: Aged Paper, Dusty Shelves). According to the owners, the business began with an exhaustive online search for a library-scented candle, followed by disappointment: “bookish candles simply didn’t exist.” So they ordered some candle-making supplies and got to work making scents like “Book Cellar” (Dirt, Basement, Vanilla Bean).
Is a candle that smells like a basement of moldy books brilliant, or simply bookish kitsch? Roxie, one of Frostbeard’s founders, “wanted to capture the smell of old books, coffee, and antique wooden book shelves” on demand, with just “the strike of a match”—since “reading a book was a full-body experience that involved sight, sound, and scent.” Fawning over the smell of old books might be tacky, but there’s wisdom in understanding reading as an embodied experience. Too often, we work from the assumption that reading is first and foremost about the mind; a book-scented candle asks how much of the reading experience remains when we strip it down to sensations like light, warmth, and the scent of paper. In The Eyes of The Skin, Juhani Pallasmaa explains why writing about architecture should assume “the body as the locus of perception, thought and consciousness:”
“all the senses, including vision, are extensions of the tactile sense; the senses are specializations of skin tissue, and all sensory experiences are modes of touching and thus related to tactility. Our contact with the world takes place at the boundary line of the self through specialized parts of our enveloping membrane.”
What would it look like to write a book that leveraged the body’s full range of perception? A reading experience enhanced by our ability to “detect more than 10,000 difference odours?” Books that asked the skin to read “the texture, weight, density and temperature of matter?”
Or perhaps books already ask this. If looking is indeed a form of touch, as Pallasmaa suggests, then reading becomes the process of touching each word on a page, in order. Perhaps readers are always conscious of the weight of a book, the rattle of each leaf as it turns. The voice of a screen reader scanning a webpage. Perhaps a broad range of sensory perception is inherent to any act of reading. Yet we continue to describe reading as (mostly) a mental pursuit. As Richard Rorty quips, “if the body had been easier to understand, nobody would have thought that we had a mind.”
Some of Frostbeard’s book-scented candles are generic (“Cozy Murder Mystery,” which smells like apple whiskey and wool blanket), but most are inspired by a specific book. Although some scents correspond to works of literature (“Darcy’s Parlor” smells like leather and tobacco), most piggyback on popular genre fiction. Harry Potter-inspired candles are, unfortunately, a little too numerous (“Headmaster’s Office” smells like fireplace, cedarwood, and lemon, “Divination Classroom” smells like incense and earl gray tea, and “Charmed Choco Toad” smells like dark chocolate and orange zest). Marketing a scent like “Book Worm” (apple, newsprint, crayon) asks customers to take a leap, imaginatively assigning a scent to the activity of eating books. But the Harry Potter inspired scents don’t strike me as equally imaginative; they fabricate a fantasy that’s nonetheless predictable. In other words, lots of fiction smells boring.
Compounding the predicament, Frostbeard stops short at imagining scents for non-fiction and poetry. Let’s give them a hand by imagining what the pile of books on my nightstand might smell like:
Information and Society, from the MIT Press Essential Knowledge Series (hollinger box, fresh pencil shavings)
We Both Laughed in Pleasure: The Selected Diaries of Lou Sullivan (crumpled hanky, sweaty bodies at a protest, leather, foot fetish, cigarette smoke, new spandex bodysuit)
Button Identification Guide (bone, bakelite, clumps of cottony thread, metallic aftertaste, vomit and occasional ER trips)
Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism (singed flesh of Mark Zuckerberg)
Shitty Printers (melting plastic)
Joseph Smith and the Mormons (log cabin, polygamy, tar, oxen breath, neck beard oil, tallow, corn whiskey)
Index Cards by Moyra Davey (expired photo fixer, footnotes, and the ghost of Roland Barthes)
Pallasmaa considers architecture to be “our primary instrument in relating us with space and time, and giving these dimensions a human measure. It domesticates limitless space and endless time to be tolerated, inhabited and understood by humankind.” The same might be said of books, which are finite but humanizing capsules of knotted space/time. We write about books mostly in terms of “content” and secondarily in terms of “form” (physical or literary); we rarely write about books beyond the eye, in terms of touch, smell, taste, sound, weight, or volume.
Pallasmaa notes the legitimate reasons that modernist architecture caters to the eye before all else: “the perception of sight as our most important sense is well grounded in physiological, perceptual and psychological facts.” Likewise, he acknowledges that “the privileging of sight does not necessarily imply a rejection of the other senses.” In most writing about books, no one takes issue with the idea of books engaging multiple senses, but a book only remains a book (rather than, say, a sculpture) as long as it maintains a hierarchy between vision and the other senses. Books that cease to be readable cease to be books, which sounds like a logical argument. But it’s also an argument that narrows the reading experience down to what is visual, stripping reading of smell, taste, and touch. An alternative hierarchy— one that places touch as “the mother of the senses,” the sense which became differentiated into the others—prompts us to strike a match, inhale sulphur, and return, briefly, to the body. To a specific reader, a body in space. To reading not as an escape, but as an embodied situation.
Excited for this virtual reading/book launch tomorrow. Find my contribution about hypothetical sculptural books (sorry, not sorry) at the end of the anthology.
9am - 6pm Friday October 8: find all the Details here
I feel lucky to spend quality time with work-in-progress by Paula and Danika on a regular basis. If you’re in the twin cities, don’t miss this reading on November 18! If you’re in Iowa City, catch a reading with me, Matthew, and Danika the night before on November 17 at Public Space One.
What do artists do all day? Well, this artist would love to tackle your mending pile. Here’s how it works: you give me your broken clothes. Then I repair them and give them back to you, and you give me some money. You joyfully wear your favorite clothes until the end of their useful life. Check out photos of recent mends here, and review my rates for mending services. Did you know? Mending services can include sewing words and phrases into your clothing.
Please respond: what kind of cologne does the ghost of Roland Barthes wear?