A Rhapsody in Book Smell
EVERYBODY WHO GETS SHOWN A STACK ON A TOUR: Wow! It even smells like literature in here!
ME (smugly): Just another little service we provide.
A few years ago, the neologism e-book was on everyone’s lips. When the first general-consumer e-readers were introduced c. 1998, the New York Times predicted a massive move screenward. What would happen to print collections, to publishers, to the less technically inclined, when all reading happened electronically?
In the library world, we were staving off panic with wit like this:
Let me be clear: the Library encourages all kinds of reading, on any medium. Just take a peek at our growing e-book offerings! But we are built on this 300,000-strong print collection, and it was tragic to contemplate its potential supercession.
Then human nature clicked in. Here’s a Times writer five years ago, feeling his way back to a full reading experience with print books—and their smell. The year after, Scientific American backed up that instinct with neuroscience. It turns out that the tactile interactiveness of print—the heft, the crackle, the shape of your location on page or in volume, and those papery, gluey aromas—intertwines with the human brain in a way that screens simply do not.
Perhaps, as Library trustee Shirley Hazzard once intoned to me, "The book is a perfect form."
Now book smell is having a pop-culture moment, with even parfumiers and candlestick-makers selling it treelessly. Get your own hit of nostalgia, they suggest, or attract a nerdy mate. I first encountered this charmingly named line of candles as a mere conversation piece at the Astoria Bookshop, where print reigns. I still bought one as an amusement for a Sherlockian friend—paired, naturally, with a used print book.
But while it's nice to have science and capitalism on my side, let me both analyze and celebrate. Because I love to sniff books, and I don’t care who knows it.
That boiling July when we lined up into the night for the last Harry Potter,
and a waft of promise from the super-mass-produced heavy hardcover overcame even the fear of spoilers...
The shiny new weak-spine pong of the Schirmer score when I got cast in my next Gilbert & Sullivan...
The strange look from my subway neighbor when I enhanced my commute with the scent of academia...
The chemical-plant tang of ink from a sticky-paged graphic novel...
And surely our specific rebound Thomas Merton bestows a whiff of heaven.
In her new My Life with Bob, Pamela Paul writes,
"Some people are perfectly content with the mere reading of books...For these people, it's all about content. I envy their focus and their discipline. Because there is also the other sort, the kind who gets all caught up in the rest of the book - even when it's not read. My sort wants the book in its entirety. We need to touch it, to examine the weight of its paper and the way text is laid out on the page. People like me open books and inhale the binding, favoring the scents of certain glues over others, breathing them in like incense even as the chemicals poison our brains. We consume them."
Book-sniffing is free to the public on the first floor. Members are welcome to browse the stacks for the vintage of their choice. Or if you’ve got nothing but a screen to hand, my sympathies—but you can learn more about olfaction from this past event.
May all your senses bring you happy reading.
(in the sidebar: Cecilia Levy's art!)