There are as many opinions in the digital age as ways to share them and what’s a middling reader to do if keeping one’s wits applies? (Check here if they need not apply.) Me? I’ve always tried to read broadly, by which I mean across disciplines certainly, but also to gather whatever contradictory opinions may be, if not likable, at least understandable. In 1970, when I was fifteen, I subscribed to both the Nation and the National Review. I read them with a magnifying glass, holding them close to my one good eye. Their pages had an identical odor, cellulose and iodine, mouldering promised, a smell that even today can make me nearly weep, especially in libraries. You know the fragrance of hopelessness and shivered glucose. So you’re reading William Buckley or Leonard Bernstein with your left eye which hops like a sparrow and you have a good whiff of promissory decay and what the hell, you’re only a teenager, and already you know despair leaps right off the page.
The nose recognizes memento mori first. That was always its job. Printed ideas are invariably sad, even when they propose optimism. Sorrow was in the delivery system, if you will. And no honest writer can ignore it. It’s the olfactory gorilla in the room. I mean what I’m saying. There’s the architecture of mephitic despair—for instance, what did J.P. Morgan’s library smell like in 1902? Short answer? The vapors of sorrow.
What’s the odor of digital writing? There is none, of course, which is perhaps the greatest lie in the history of scribbling. Odor ye will always have, though it sneaks up later.
Which brings me to a new category of apprehension: writers who, in the electronic age, garner promissory stinks. They may not smell of dead pulp, but their ideas will pull you by the nose eventually. I don’t need to name names. Noses are plenty smart.
I read with my imaginary snoot.