Tag Archives: travel

The Smell of Paper, the Weightlessness of Digital

28 Dec

Last night my bud and I were watching a very campy episode from Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s early days, “I Robot, You Jane.” As dated as the episode’s plot is, Giles, the antiquated British librarian, gets into an argument about paper vs. digital that is still surprisingly relevant. Giles argues,

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 texture, 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.

Oh, Rupert, I get your point, I really do. I collect (aka hoard) books. I love the feel of the pages and the covers, I love flipping back and forth between passages, bookmarking with old ticket stubs or grocery lists, and yes, the smell. I don’t think tangible books are going anywhere anytime soon. 

But books are also heavy and space-consuming, and as much as I heap out the saying “You can never have too many books” in generous quantities, I feel like the saying should come with an asterisk:

You can never have too many books.*

*So long as you’re settled down and have ample space.

Neither of these criteria apply to me. As a 20-something, I’m far from settled down, and I have a hankering to travel abroad again, possibly to teach abroad for a year or more. A few years ago I got to travel in one-month blocks around Europe, and I did so with a 10-kg backpack. It was freeing to have so little, and since backpack space was precious, I would pass on a book to another traveler or leave it somewhere for a stranger to find once I finished it. Sharing a book I had just read and loved was even more fulfilling than running my hands over a well-read and well-loved book from my personal library.

But it’s hard to let go, especially when I’ve accumulated such a wonderful collection. Still, if I’m going abroad, I would rather share my favorite books than to hoard them up and store them in a box in my parents’ house until my return. The question then becomes, which physical books do I hold on to? Books that demand underlining and dog-earring of pages? Books signed by authors? Books given as gifts? Rare copies? And what is the maximum amount of books that can still be qualified as the “bare minimum”? 

I’m curious as to what others think. Physical copies of books will always be my preference when I’m at home, but when I’m traveling or my living circumstances are far from concrete, digital is an amazing convenience. I can carry thousands of pages, hundreds of authors and ideas and storylines, in my pocket and across the world. The words are, after all, the most important part of the story. But the smell is always a nice perk.