ASMR and the Pleasures of Book History

What follows in this post is much more anecdotal than usual; it might also seem absurd or ridiculous next to my other Vade Mecum entries. But I’m very curious about a possible relationship between the pleasures of book history and a very strange physiological sensation that I’ve had since I was a child. If that sentence doesn’t daunt you, gentle reader, read on.

When I was in elementary school, I started getting this weird feeling in my head. It still happens now, but I was probably around the age of seven or eight when I first noticed it or started paying attention to it. Far from a painful headache, it was a warm, calming, tingling sensation that spread out from the crown of my head down my scalp and into my neck and spine. I had no idea why it happened, but as I got older and went through high school and college, I began to associate it — at least, in my own mind — with personal, one-on-one moments of detailed instruction, explanation, or directions. For instance, my second-grade teacher tracing her hand on paper to make a Thanksgiving turkey decoration would trigger the feeling. Or, my ninth-grade art teacher demonstrating a complex painting technique to me after class would bring it forward. I associated the feeling with learning and with my teachers, with quiet or whispered speaking, and with certain sounds, visuals, and thought patterns. Mainly, at school.

I remember attempting to explain this sensation to family and friends on multiple occasions, but no one could quite understand. In college, I spoke about it with one friend who claimed that she’d felt the same feeling too. (Please bear with me; I know this sounds strange.) This was really exciting for me to hear, but we lacked any kind of terminology to talk about it. Basically, we didn’t know what it was, so the fact that we both had it seemed more of a coincidence than anything else. I’ve since gone about my life, reading and writing here, watching hockey there, socializing with friends, and traveling whenever possible. But I’m frequently on the lookout for moments that trigger that weird, pleasurable sensation for which I had no point of reference or explanation.

Until yesterday, that is. I learned that I’m far from alone in experiencing what is known as Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, or ASMR. Wikipedia’s entry defines ASMR as “a perceptual phenomenon characterized as a distinct, pleasurable tingling sensation in the head, scalp, back, or peripheral regions of the body in response to visual, auditory, olfactory, and/or cognitive stimuli.” The materials cited for this Wiki-entry are startlingly new, the earliest article having been published in February of 2012. Tracing my way through these news stories and a recent radio episode of This American Life, I listened to and read about others who experienced roughly the same perplexing sensation during childhood and the great difficulty of classifying, understanding, or even explaining it adequately to family and friends. The ASMR “community” online is actually quite substantial, as can be seen from hundreds and hundreds of YouTube videos of people – often, women, though not always – who play certain roles, whisper, speak in an explanatory manner, and use inanimate objects to create soft, soothing noises. The view-counts for these videos are staggering. As Andrea Siegel explains on This American Life, it might seem at first that these videos are sexual or pornographic, but they’re not; on the contrary, rather than arousal, they inspire a sense of peace, almost a stoner-like high.

As I learned about this and watched a couple of the trigger-videos, I immediately recognized my sensations, and I began to think about my love for books and the bibliographical threads of my research in graduate school. What if ASMR, I wondered, has some kind of connection to my deep interest in material books? My scholarship concerns Renaissance printing and bookmaking, and requires me to visit research libraries like the Newberry where I handle and study 400-year-old artifacts. These books often have roiled vellum bindings or exposed stitching jobs; the letters of the text have been stamped into the watermarked leaves in a very three-dimensional way; traces of readerly practice or use are visible in 16c or 17c marginalia. To these quiet, whispery reading rooms, I bring a set of developed, but hardly complete bibliographical methods that often depend on sequential instructions and great attention to physical detail. In fact, I can recall moments in my own bibliographical training in which I experienced ASMR, though I had no name for it at the time.  Could this research, let alone my general love for books and my own (unfortunately expensive!) book-collecting habits have any relationship to ASMR? I definitely know, now more than ever, that I experience this pleasurable brain-tingling. But is it possible that this sensation, triggered commonly by inanimate objects, whispered descriptions and instructions, sweet or particular smells, and certain mental connections, has something to do with my investments in bibliography and book history?

I will probably never be able to answer that question, but I find it deeply provocative. I also wonder how many other bibliographers or book historians out there experience ASMR, in or outside the archive. As my colleague Rebecca Fall has suggested recently in a NUDHL blog post, Renaissance reading involved a very sensory set of practices hardly limited to the visual; she wonders furthermore how this knowledge comes to bear on how we read in the 21st century. “When we read with our whole bodies, it seems,” she says, “we learn better—or at least I do.” I do as well, and scribble on any copy I get my hands on (barring the archive, that is). But while Fall is interested mainly in the tactile here, I wonder about how other sensations come into play when we do book history. And I wonder about how ASMR might offer some kind of increased incentive for bibliography and archival investigation. My research isn’t only interesting to me — it feels good.

If my isolated case still seems strange, I’ll conclude this post by pointing to some videos on YouTube. Hardly conclusive, this picture is meant mainly to be suggestive about ASMR and the pleasures of books. A good number of the role-playing videos, some created upon YouTube users’ requests, suggest that booksellers and librarians are common activators of ASMR. This particular clip features a young man playing the part of a librarian; his whispering, his accent, his explanations of the books’ content, and the page-turning sounds are designed to stimulate the sensation in viewers.  Another video simply shows a bookshelf, and the sounds of the books being taken down and perused by the video’s creator deliver the sensation. Here, a video creator rakes her fingernails against two books’ bindings; this clip has a place among many other “tapping and scratching” book videos. While contemporary books appear in many of these videos, some include older or rarer artifacts. For instance, in this video, which is nearly an hour long, the creator examines an 1892 edition of The Scarlet Letter with a very unstable, damaged binding and a 1907 edition of Shakespeare’s Pericles.  “The Aberdine University Press, Limited,” whispers the reader-narrator at the end of the clip. The bibliographical accuracy of the whispered commentary in these videos could easily be criticized as lacking, and the notion underlying this post might seem equally absurd. However, I think that these clips speak to a broader and perhaps more consequential issue: a particular physiological sensation that we are only beginning to comprehend and its relationship to the world of books.

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