Odors, Cursive, and Reading

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June 8, 2017 by libroshombre


Reading a new library book by Keith Houston titled “The Book: A Cover-to-Cover Exploration of the most Powerful Object of Our Time” might have sensitized me, or maybe its was all those decades working in libraries, but books keep cropping up. There was a  ScienceDaily.com article about “The Historic Book Odour Wheel” created by researchers at Britain’s UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage. It’s designed “to document and archive the aroma associated with old books” with “the potential to be used as a diagnostic tool by conservators,on the condition of an object, for example its state of decay, through its olfactory profile.”

In one test, visitors to St. Paul’s Cathedral Dean and Chapter Library (which was established in 1313, almost completely burned in London’s Great Fire of 1666, and revitalized in the 1700s) were asked to describe what they smelled. 100% said “woody,” followed by “smoky” (86%), “earthy” (71%), and “vanilla” (41%), with around 85% describing it as “pleasant” or “mildly pleasant.” Another smelling test involved a 1928 book from a second-hand London bookshop; “The word ‘chocolate’ … was used most often, followed by ‘coffee,’ ‘old,’ ‘wood,’ and ‘burnt.’ Participants also mentioned smells including ‘fish,’ ‘body odour,’ ‘rotten socks,’ and ‘mothballs.’”

Browsing through Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable inadvertently led me to the brief entry “Bookland: see Bocland,” and research ensued. Under Anglo-Saxon law, “folkland” was land held by the head of a kinship group and couldn’t be transferred, or “alienated,” to someone unrelated without the king’s approval. Alienated land was recorded in a charter, or “boc,” and thereafter could be sold at will.

Houston’s “The Book” might not appeal to all, but exposure to the historical development of the book in library school has led to an enduring fascination for this subject. However,most readers eyes don’t light up at the mention of Aldus Manutius, the fifteenth century Venetian printer who revolutionized book production, because he created books that were portable and affordable.

The “Aldine books” were about 6 by 4 ½ inches in size, and cost less to produce. Aldus, “the man who democratized books,” achieved smaller books by directing a letter-cutter named Francesco Griffo to create a new, compact typefont to replace the bulky lettering being used by the Italian humanists. Aldus noted how a new trend, “a slanting, graceful variant of roman script had become fashionable … and Manutius directed Griffo to cut a new typeface based upon the handwriting of Niccolo de Niccoli, one of its most accomplished practitioners. Aldus’s contemporaries called the new typeface ‘Aldino’ after the printer who pioneered it, but today we call it ‘italic’ after its Italian origins.”

That reminded me of “The Comeback of Cursive,” an article in Economist.com that described French and Norwegian neurophysiologists’ research indicating “that different parts of the brain are stimulated when reading letters learned by writing them on paper, rather than by typing them on a keyboard. The movement and tactile response involved in handwriting leaves a memory trace in the sensorimotor of the brain, which are retrieved when reading the letters involved.”

“In America two developments have thrust penmanship back into the public arena,” the article continued. “One is the reaction to the Common Core curriculum,” which restricts handwriting instruction to five-to-seven year-olds. “The other, more subtle development stems from the way knowledge workers have lately become a good deal less desk-bound.” Combine that with “big strides made recently in software for handwriting recognition,” and it’s unsurprising “that employers hiring new staff are prizing the ability to write speedily and legibly in cursive.”

Writing well requires reading skills, which are also most effectively taught by human instructors using enjoyable printed materials. Sadly, our school district is trending in the opposite direction. Fortunately, parents and caregivers are the best reading teachers, and the recipe for inspiring your child to read is simple: read to them daily, and let them see you read regularly, too.

I’m mighty glad I did that with my children, starting with my oldest, who recently sent me this quote: “A physical book is like eating a great meal in a beautiful restaurant with a fantastic view; an e-book is like eating the same meal from a takeout box on your lap in a basement.”



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