Don’t pretend you don’t sniff books. We all do.

The smell of a book may not have anything to do with the quality of the contents, but it is a part of the reading experience. I love the smell of a library; it tells me I am swimming in books. I love the smell of an art gallery, too, that olio of old oil, decaying latex, aging canvas and paper, mixed with the wafting scents of coffee and quiche from the cafeteria. My wife loves the smell of an ice rink; I love the smell of a theatre backstage (dilute latex paint and a bit of wood).

And who doesn’t love the smell of a new car? For that matter, who doesn’t pay attention to the sound of their car? High-end sports car manufacturers (Porsche, Ferrari, Lamborghini) put a lot of effort into getting just the right engine sound, the one that distinguishes them from the others. It’s a mark of the mettle of the metal, the machismo of the machine. Meanwhile, vacuum cleaners have long been far louder than they need to be, just because people wouldn’t believe they worked if they were too quiet (this is changing, which pleases me; I won’t say that, like nature and cats, I abhor a vacuum, but I sure hate the sound of one).

Pick up a new wine glass. What’s one of the first things you’re likely to do to it? If you’re like me, you’ll flick it with your finger to hear the “ting.” If I see a silver coin I will drop it just to hear its higher ring when it hits. I can only assume gun owners pay attention to the sound their gun makes when it’s cocked – I know that different guns can be identified by the sound they make when being fired (AK-47s apparently have a distinctive sound unlike American equivalents; I assume an Uzi has its own resonance too; and so on). Photo equipment buffs always pay attention to the shutter sound, whether they admit it or not. One photographer I chatted with said she loved the Mamiya 7 (one of the best cameras ever made, by common opinion) but couldn’t get over the light, almost flimsy-sounding click of its shutter. (It’s also ugly. A camera only a results-oriented person could love.) Any Leica freak will have clear attachments to the sound of a Leica’s focal-plane shutter; go to Steve Huff’s website and check his videos in his reviews of Leicas and other new cameras – he never misses trying the shutter sound and comparing it to other models.

Heck, people are so attached to the sound of a shutter that digital cameras that have no mechanical shutters will come with a fake “shutter” sound – or a choice of several. But I’m not here to talk about skeuomorphs today. I’m here to talk about genuine sounds and sights and smells that are secondary to the ostensible principal function of a thing. These sensations are associated with the valued thing and so gain a glow of that value, but in many cases they also tell us something extra about the quality of the thing. How well-built is the car, the camera, or the gun? How pure is the glass or crystal, or the silver in the coin? What sort is the paper and ink in the book or magazine?

We taste reality like many of us taste wine. Why does the colour of a wine matter? What difference does it make if this pinot noir has a light ruby glow while that one bleeds like borshch? In the end, it’s the taste that matters, right? Well, let’s be honest: few of us would drink as much of it without the alcohol. But if it’s not just the alcohol that matters, why should it be just the alcohol and taste that matter? Why not appreciate the look of it? Why not appreciate the label on the bottle, too? Many people do. As well they should. Why not look for reasons to enjoy things?

Many people pretend to taste and discernment but spend their time looking for reasons not to enjoy things. It’s evident that their primary enjoyment comes from feeling themselves of superior discernment, a discernment that means knowing which few things are good and which many things are not. I do not think this is a very effective way of enjoying life. It is true that there are many things a given person will not enjoy, and that things that seem wondrous to you when you first start in a pursuit may seem trite when you know the subject better. But if you want to enjoy what you experience, why on earth would you not look for more ways and reasons to enjoy things? Why would you look only for reasons not to enjoy things? This just increases the number of things you don’t enjoy. I don’t like the look of that balance sheet.

When we appreciate secondary aspects of things – their sounds, their smells, their appearances (I’ve barely mentioned the look of cars and cameras and so on; somehow we all take it for granted that that’s important, though it has little to do with function) – we are appreciating reality as we appreciate wine. And, of course, words.

But what is the name for these sensations, these secondary aesthetic qualities? I’m not familiar with an established formal-sounding term (though perhaps someone will toss one my way), so I’ve decided to confect one from the usual classical bits. It’s the word you’ve been waiting for me to get to: deuteraesthetics (with or without the final s, as needed), from deuter, meaning ‘second’ or ‘secondary’, and aesthetic, referring to sensations. The deuteraesthetic aspects of a thing are the sound of a shutter, the smell of a book, the look of anything that has a primary function unrelated to appearance.

At base, of course, they are all sesquiotics: semiotics, but three times as good.

One response to “deuteraesthetic

  1. A true story:

    I was asked to drive a visiting rabbi to the home of our rabbi. When we arrived, our rabbi was occupied with another matter and asked that we wait for him in his study. What does one do while waiting in a rabbi’s study? One looks at the books which fill the shelves on every wall.

    I’m looking over the English titles and the visiting rabbi is looking over the many Hebrew ones. Suddenly the visiting rabbi pulls a book from the shelf. He opens it, rapidly scanning from page to page. The color drains from his face. He is now quite pale and agitated. Gradually he calms down, the color returns to his face. He slowly closes the book, kisses it, and replaces it on the shelf. I didn’t say anything. After all, he’s a rabbi and (on this occasion) I’m just his chauffeur.

    But then it happens again. The visitor pulls another book from the shelf. Again he flips the pages furiously. Again he becomes pale and seems upset. And again he regains his composure, kisses the book and puts it back on the shelf.

    This time I asked: “Rabbi, what was wrong with that book?”

    He smiled and replied: “Nothing. Nothing at all. For a moment I thought he had one I didn’t have.”

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