The smell of print culture

Believer readers have commented recently on the monthly magazine’s odor. Redolent of what is the question, for we too succumb every month, sticking our nose deep between the pages for a potent snort or two. We find the Believer’s suggested explanation spurious: “…foil stamp on the cover. That’s probably what it was” (Dear the Believer, March/April 08, p. 2). Surely, some Lotus Eater is at work here. 

But we’ve always stuck our nose into books, savoring the ink and pages, a happy habit started no doubt in one of Sister Maryquill’s classes, when we got to work the mimeograph machine, producing those luscious handouts smeared with wet blue ink, the students all smelling the pages up close, blue tipped noses betraying the practice like ashes on the forehead.

But of course the blue ink dried and faded, leaving one with the dull task of completing the worksheet. The Believer pages also seem to lose their odor over time. We conducted an experiment: March 05, slight humus smell still in the pages, though this copy was at the bottom of a stack, so maybe it wasn’t breathing properly; April 06, slightly stronger, faint taste of compost; June/July 07 (the music issue), stronger still, a bedroom in the morning, windows closed; March/April 08 (the film issue), potent, redolent of the mimeograph machine and the pages it produced.

There you have it. The experiment suggests something organic, some herbal ingredient either in the ink or in the pages, which decays over time. The Believer pages are thick and rough, like old coloring book pages, thicker and rougher than glossy magazine pages – some of those, we’ve noticed lately, are tinged with perfume advertisements, an obvious attempt to address reader attrition by simulating the mimeograph effect. The Believer pages are alive. 

Whatever permeates the Believer’s pages, one thing is certain: to our sense, eBooks carry no odor, fair or foul, and that we find distressful; but readers here might smell something funny in this post.

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