Thursday, December 17, 2009

Paper Trail

I’m a paper person. In all senses.

Touch: To crease the spine of a paperback, to dog-ear pages that bear quotes to treasure or references to remember, to fold the newspaper at the breakfast table and prize the kiss of smudged ink left on the fingertips. These, and more, are sensations to savor. They're tactile elements that enhance the reading experience and are lost with the mechanization of words.

Smell: One of the wacky childhood habits that has stuck with me is paper-smelling. There is a running register, ten or so, of standard paper smells.

There's the musty-grandmother's-attic classic literary hardcover. Stick your nose in the binding and inhale; it smells like you've peeled the cracked tape off water-stained cardboard boxes, or shaken out your grandmother's stale, dust-powdered mink.

There's the the sharp, sterile scent of a magazine. Flipping through the pages wafts up the smell of beach-ball-plastic plus floral traces of unstuck perfume samples.

Best-selling fiction novels? Clean wood shavings.

Book of crossword puzzles? Smutty wood shavings.

Library book? Eraser shavings.

Cracking open the spine of a book or re-creasing a brochure flap or pulling a fresh sheet off the printer: these experiences change, for me, when I can't touch the pages, yes, but also when I can't smell them. Every laptop and Kindle and Blackberry screen smells the same. Keith Lubely on the New Yorker's books blog The Book Bench makes this point for me, in quoting John Freeman's book The Tyranny of E-Mail: "Computers have become handier, cuter, some might even say sexier, but they do very little to engage us as physical beings. They have almost no smell; only the most fanatical have tried licking them.” Although, who knows, we may not be far from that.

Apparently there's even some scientific substantiation of the import of book odors. Steve Mersky writes, "[R]esearchers identified 15 organic compounds that made good markers to track the condition of books." See what I'm saying? (Listen to the Scientific American podcast here.)

And, lastly-

Sight: The bookstore is my Canaan. The library is my lunch break refuge. The newsstand is my oasis on a subway-grate-belching, gum-stamped city street. All things paper, great and small, are a source of interest, appealing in any state of mind or physical or temporal setting. Paper, and the visual information it affords us, is the bearer of knowledge, opinion, humor, beauty, hope, despair, enlightenment, provocation. Finding a book of poetry that clutches your heart can usher you through the most trying of times. Sorting through the miscellany that clogs your (snail)mailbox, or comes raining through your front door, might be irking but also validates the fact that you have a roof over your head. The jazzy blurbs on the back of your cereal box help pump oxygen into your veins when there’s no time for a second cup of coffee. The playbill you leaf through while waiting for the house lights to dim stimulates conversation with your neighbor, just passes the downtime or makes you an informed concertgoer.

Whatever the feel, whatever the smell, whatever the look, physical paper matters to me. But maybe more significantly, as I gain my footing in the post-college world, paper offers information, fodder for creativity, inspiration for action. Flyers in my apartment building elevator announcing a holiday dinner, business cards slipped from wallets, the flow chart pinned to my cubicle wall IDing the 22 people whose team I'm now a member of: these paper products are tools to help me build a new adult life for myself. Just like LinkedIn and the Publishers Weekly RSS feed on my Google Reader and my subscription to the Penn Alumni Club listserv.

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