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, 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.