Whuffling Through the Social Sciences

IN THIS EPISODE: Shopsitter Andrew Whalen gets more than he bargained for while trying to impose a little order on life’s chaos….

Things got a little too real today when I tore apart the “-Ology” bookshelf and set out to rebuild it. This shelf contains folklore, sociology, anthropology, self-help, career advice and research best practices.

At first reorganizing was fun. In a confusing world it can be comforting to establish hierarchies and draw borders. This is the appeal of the low-stakes nerd debate. Does it matter if Kirk or Picard were the better starship captain? No, but it feels good to put things in order (this one always seemed easy to me: one survived the reign of Kodos the Executioner, has the middle name Tiberius, passed the Kobayashi Maru test, and defeated conqueror-of-all-Asia Khan Noonien Singh… the other is Picard).

But some chaos cannot be cornered, tagged and boxed. Some chaos can only be whuffled, which is the word I made up to describe the sensation and action of bottling various fogs. Or the word I thought I had made up until I typed it into a search engine and found it used to describe sniffling, gentle affection and thankless online forum moderation. If we’re going by my definition (not endorsed by the Internet) it’s a feeling that accompanies so much of what we try to set in place. And the more I stared down the “-Ology” shelf, the more I begin to think the whole world is made of whuffle.

Yes, whuffle is verb, adjective and noun. It’s very versatile.

Before the “-Ology” shelf this uncertainty seemed very abstract to me. It came up primarily when considering genre. Is it fantasy just because there are swords? Is it sci-fi just because there are spaceships? Read Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun and get back to me. Welcome back. See what I mean? And that’s before we get into odd-balls like Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Thomas Pynchon, and Margaret Atwood. No wonder people just gave up and invented the term speculative fiction.

The “-Ology” shelf was supposed to be different. It represents entirely separate realms of human knowledge! It’s like a UN of social sciences, each field a tiny nation-state with its own territories and agendas.

But my distinct borders kept getting knocked down. What to do with Typetalk, which purports to be a study of the Myers-Brigg Type Indicator, but has self-help cover language promising to aid in determining how you “live, love and work”? Things only blurred more from there. When is a study on families anthropology and when is it sociology? Are Coping with Difficult People and Coping with Difficult Bosses really so different that they should be three shelves apart, one in sociology, the other in career guidance? ARGH.

So I started fresh, with a new theory. I could arrange the shelf like a continuity. There was a spectrum at play, beginning with psychology: the individual opening up onto the family, expanding into the society, then reaching out to other societies and forms of governance before finally drilling back down into the individual stories each society treasures. Brain to Folklore, with all of human experience in between. Made total sense for like two seconds. But things just got worse. And by the end I had almost convinced myself that Life-Span Developmental Psychology and Normative Life Crises was interchangeable with Folklore in the English and Scottish Ballads.

I look at the shelf now and see nothing but whuffle. No matter how hard we try (I’m looking at you, Dewey, with all your decimals) nothing exists entirely separate and apart. Categories are cool, but they are never definite. All things interlock and nothing is simple. But as maddening and confusing as that can get for the bookshelf organizer, it probably makes for a more interesting world.

Dust and Ideas

Someone asked me recently, “What’s that lovely smell, the one you get in old bookshops, made of?”

Dust and ideas, as near as I can tell. And it’s not nearly so esoteric as one might think.

This past Friday some synchronicity appeared when two very different pals from the book world forwarded information on book smells. Lara in Canada sent the above photo about a new (quite nicely packaged) perfume called “Paper Passion.” And my agency, Harold Ober, tweeted this link:

@bookstorewendy: As the authority on Old Book Smells, what do you say to this analysis? mentalfloss.com/blogs/archives…

As the mentalfloss article states, old books carry “a combination of grassy notes with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla over an underlying mustiness.” Yes, we all agree that the smell of books presents their history–and that it’s a pretty nice smell, to have inspired a perfume!

The vanilla-and-acid analysis is poetic, and as Charles Lamb said, “A book reads the better which is our own, and has been so long known to us, that we know the topography of its blots, and dog’s ears, and can trace the dirt in it to having read it at tea with buttered muffins.” Plus, I have this somewhat silly idea that old books are heavier because they take in not only smells from their readers, but weight, from their readers’ minds.

As a college student I often helped a friend who worked in Psych Services check the meeting rooms before locking up at night. Sometimes when we opened the door of one of those little counseling cubicles, the heaviness of what had been discussed in there lingered on the very air. I don’t mean “vibes and aura” stuff, just that there was a palpable (usually dark) residue in those rooms.

Of course, not all thoughts are ponderous and ominous like thunderclouds; some are featherlight, airy as sunbeams. No matter which, it just makes sense that people reading books, pulling ideas out of them, leave a little of themselves behind–be that the breath of thought or the breadcrumbs of lunch.

All those leftovers contribute to the book’s smell, its appearance, its personality, if you will. This is something bibliophiles know and respect. In our bookstore, we often see people stop just inside the door and take a big sniff. And we know he or she is honoring the long history of humanity’s eternal library, inhaling that wafting odor of dust and ideas.