Book sniffing note: Slanguage

Look, I don’t think I’m weird about this. I really don’t. I think lots of you sniff your books. And probably other people’s too.

The way books smell matters. The cheap hard white academic institutional paper of tenure books and reheated dissertations has a smell that tells you from the beginning that you will learn a firehose-blast of trivialities and you will not admit to enjoying it too much. My undated Hodder & Stoughton edition of The Ruba’iya’t of Omar Khayyam has just a memory of a smell of storytime from thick soft volumes, while my copy of Elementary Particles by David Griffiths has an inexplicable faint whiff of black pepper. For a long time, every issue of National Geographic had a tangy smart pong that was the closest thing I’d ever found to the taste left by a large bug (perhaps a bee) that slammed into the back of my mouth as I was cycling at speed. And nothing – nuh, thing – can match the overriding dusty-honey air of ancient foxed linen rag bond in the subterranean stacks of that Great Pyramid of theatre history, that glorious bibliotechnical Dumpster, the Harvard Theatre Collection.

But Canada is a mostly dry-air place, especially in winter. Books don’t always build as rich a smell here as they can in other lands. And so it was with pleasure that I opened a copy of Slanguage: A Dictionary of Irish Slang by Bernard Share, sent to me by Stan Carey, a very fine man who lives in Galway, which is by the ocean on the shredded west edge of Ireland, and discovered that it has more to offer the nose than the Irish whiskey in my glass.

Of course the book has myriads of fine words, and I will get to know many of them. But before I can read them, I have to open it, and at that moment it offers to my nose the air of where it had spent the past few years. It is remarkable. It is not the fungus, humus, and mildew of a basement in Boston or Buffalo (familiar to me, to be sure) but a kind of smell that if it were a person would have a grey beard and long staff but a twinkling eye. It calls to mind a Cuban seaside hotel room, a Caribbean textile, a faint scent of betel nut candy, and – I think – a basement room I woke up in sometime in my childhood when we would take car trips all over the continent and stay in the homes of old friends of my parents first and last known to me in the span of a dozen hours. As I flip through this copy of Slanguage I get from the page gutters hints of iodine and maybe the rough wounded hand that had the iodine applied to it. I am inclined to think there must be a must of a bog or something of that order; Galway is a place of rocks and bogs and moss.

It’s not an old book, and it’s not a warped or worn one either. The publication info says it was printed in 2005. It also says it was printed in Malaysia. I haven’t been to Malaysia yet, so I don’t know if it has a smell of its birthplace.

But for me it has, in total, a smell as of a not-new room half into the ground that I awake in as the dawn slips through the flimsy blue curtains, and I turn my head on a pillow and roll my body in sheets I have not touched before last night and will not touch again in this life, in a town that I had never met before the day before, and I see the small shaggy rug on the slightly sweaty tile floor and I smell the dank that reminds me there is mycology in paradise too, and I can look forward to a breakfast with one more set of fresh almost-strangers, people like books I read the dust cover of once.

But this book, its smell notwithstanding, is likely to be more like an old friend, returned to again and again to see a new leaf and another until I know some pages too well.

53 responses to “Book sniffing note: Slanguage

  1. Excellent! “What oft was thought, but ne’er so well express’d.” By me, anyway, though I’ve been consciously sniffing books for decades.

  2. Stephen Harvey

    It was, indeed, a relief to read this. I thought I was a little odd in my penchant for liking to breathe in the unique aroma of each book I read.
    Thanks, James, I feel much better now!

  3. I spray my favorite books with my perfume so that I blend with the scent of a good book, especially my old second hand books I’ve bought from street vendors. The smell of a book is so important! ❤

  4. Are you part Bloodhound? You’d give my 2yr old pet a run for her money. With a nose like yours, you should lend it to the wine or chocolate industry. Can’t get what you described from a Kindle.
    Thanks for sharing.

  5. What a lovely smell journey! This inspires me to pull some books long-forgotten off my shelf and give them a good sniff, to bring back the nostalgia of reading them for the first time. I tend to check out books from my library nowadays, and there’s a bit of reluctance there to sniff them, as they’re handled by numerous strangers who have also breathed directly onto the pages. But then I recall that a majority of my books have come from second-hand stores and they too are just as musty from other’s breath.

  6. Reblogged this on Living The Love and commented:
    I spray my favorite books with my perfume so that I blend with the scent of a good book, especially my old second hand books I’ve bought from street vendors. The smell of a book is so important! ❤

  7. So agree, like the warm slightly musty smell of old books and the ones like vanilla ice-cream.

  8. Thanks. Makes me feel better to know I am not the only one who likes to smell a book. The smell is as important as the weight and feel of it.

  9. I used to smell books. Now, I don’t do it, probably because I am trying the smell the world that the books describe more ( i read a lot of fiction ).

    But I get it. Book smell matters and I absolutely how you were able to categorize books by their smells. I kind of envy your nose.

  10. Reading is fun. But not sniffing the dust of ages on the shelves. Not if you’re alergic!

  11. This is a very appropriate categorising of what we call “bookworms”. The smell of a book goes a long way into defining the kind of mark it leaves on your life. ❤️

  12. Loved this piece and was glad to know that there are other book sniffers out there. I

  13. Ahh, I can’t read a book without sniffing it first. You’ve caught me!

  14. Likewise. I always knew there was someone out there like me! Lol

  15. I’ve done this ever since I could remember and I’ve been judged because of it lol, never to harsh of course but boy am I glad I’m not alone !!

  16. Lois Bryan Photography and Digital Art

    Thank heavens … I do it too!! I’ve got some oldie-goldies that belonged to my mom and dad. I’m sure you can imagine …

  17. I’d like to think that there’s a special connection we all have to those powerful smells. I know there are less of us simply because people like their screens now, but I still love the intoxication of opening an old book.

  18. Books are like wine the older they are the better they smell. I have the poems of Elizabeth Barrent Browning dated 1844. It has a sweet musk scent to it.

  19. I thought only I like the smell of new books :-). Great to know that there many like me.

  20. Reblogged this on Strands in the Weave of My Thoughts and commented:
    Nothing like a book in hand!

  21. Really wish I had some time to read again!

  22. ❤️Rosie❤️

    Wow thats sooo cool!!

  23. Have to admit, sniffing the book is the first thing I do whenever I pick or receive one. There’s that satisfaction to be had. But I’ve never pondered on the aromas for more than a few seconds. Something to keep in mind now. 😀

  24. Great article, good read, you got my eye when I saw the title.My daughter loves the smell of new books. Like my daughter you’re all weirdos in a good way. I personally see it as just dust. I’ll go over to rose and sniff her petals of the grandest of all smells.

  25. Awesome article.. Smell of book is so important just before I start reading them.. It helps me to escape from my real environment to the book’s story environment which I stay in till the book’s complete :))
    Comment From :

  26. So true! A bad smelling book makes for a bad read!

  27. I like the smell of old books gets to me in a good way!

  28. Some of my favorite reads were mass-market paperbacks that were printed 20+ years ago. These books tend to have just the right level of mustiness.

  29. I love the smell of books too. The aroma was one of my favourite aspects of visiting book shops!

  30. I’ve loved the smell books old and new since I was a kid. I also used to love the smell of new cassette tapes.

  31. growarttherapist

    And don’t second hand bookshops have the most amazing wafts! Yes the smell of books matter – my phone screen just doesn’t hold up!

  32. Sniffing books is one of my secret pleasures. Thank you for making me feel not so lonely.

  33. Wow, talk about visual descriptions! As a beginning writer, I am in awe! Your writing makes me feel like I am there, experiencing your adventures and love for words intrinsically. Keep cooking your verbal concoctions!

  34. Loved it! Actually mentioned this weird habit in one of my posts!

  35. Book sniffing is a thing. It’s the first thing I do whenever I receive a new book or go to the bookshop or library, but you have such a beautiful way of writing it!

  36. The smell of old books is the best! Maybe that’s why I like going to the library so much.

  37. Yes, this is important! One of the reasons why I hate ebooks. 😀

  38. Agree. Books’ smell matter!

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  41. Pingback: Book sniffing note: Slanguage, by Bernard Share — Sesquiotica | Leo F. Tanner – Blog

  42. I don’t know when I started sniffing books, but it was at a very young age. I do remember the first time I got caught. I was maybe 6 or 7. My father and I were doing our monthly shopping in the used bookstore. I picked up a book that had an interesting cover, flipped the pages in front of my nose, and inhaled deeply. I saw my father watching me out of the corner of my eye. I got nervous, my secret was out. My dad must have sensed it because he came up to me and said, “Do you know how to tell if a book is good or not? You smell it. If it smells good, it’s good.”

    Funny. I’ve never smelled a book that I didn’t enjoy the smell (that wasn’t moldy, of course). Glad to read that so many other people do this, too.

  43. Pingback: Book sniffing note: Slanguage, by Bernard Share — Sesquiotica – IMOLE FC

  44. This was beautiful! Thank you for expressing what so many book lovers feel (and smell!) 📖❤️

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