Books – especially books that are not filled with trains of words meant to be ridden from end to end – can be like visiting a museum or gallery. You will find a route through, but it can be any of many routes. You can spend a long or short time. You can pause in some places, hurry past others. You can swim in them, letting it all flow past you as though you are a fish in an aquarium. And you can simply enter and let the smell tell you that you are where art is.
Yes, the smell. Museums and galleries have smells, some stronger than others. The gradual decay of paint, the aging of paper, the exhalations of exalted and exhausted visitors, the wandering aromas of the café in the basement. You could put me to sleep, blindfold me, and awaken me in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and I would say “Ah! The MFA! It’s been years since I was last here.” And books – art books in particular – are like that too.
Art books use different paper, often glossy paper with a clay content, and they use different amounts and kinds of ink, and they come from different printing plants. Opening an art book can be to your nose like revving an expensive car is to your ears: Yes, you are here, this is going to happen.
I have various art books. They don’t all smell the same, but most of them smell like art books, some more pointedly than others. I have just sat down with a not-too-thick clothbound dust-jacketed volume of one of my favourite photographers: André Kertész: Paris, Autumn 1963, printed by Flammarion. The photographs are what it says on the cover, pictures of people in a city at a time, captured by master of the camera. There is an essay at the start about the assembly and production of the book; it’s so interesting, I actually read it. But before I get to word one, before I can examine in detail the scenes in black ink and white paper, I open this book and my nose knows.
It knows that smell of a mixture of tangy ink, just a few shades off from oil paint in a gallery, and paper such as filled certain books languishing in a small-town library I visited when I was young, or lurking in the stacks of my university’s library in my first year, waiting for me to pull them off the shelf and open them and feel like a scholar. There are overtones of the fetid mushy smell of pulp mills in small mountain forestry towns, but only in the background, like wet newspaper you pass on a damp sidewalk. This pulp has been refined, pressed, dried, and educated. This is a smell of paper with glasses on and one eyebrow half raised.
But with the ink, that arty ink in its arrangements, it is the smell of an old book of photographs, raising a beckoning finger, asking me to come and sit down on the floor of the stacks gazing at a page that has no words, bidding me bide a while looking at soft old images of people long since buried but here still young and alive. It is a smell of life that has stopped and flattened itself against a page like a shadow of a cat awaiting the passing of peril, and it will not move while death walks the earth.
Come, come, sit down, stop, stay. Look at us, look at this, let the words end so that the world does not end. This is how life was once, when the world was black and white. And you have smelled it before, this smell that stalks galleries and art stores and the halls of your parents’ rich friends’ houses, and you know that you can come and abide with it, this autumn petrichor breathed through the open window of a paint-stained garret, this aroma that so often shades into coffee or wine, and then you can stand up and put it back on the shelf and return to the world of colour and movement and the odor of things that change.