Tag Archives: book sniffing note

Book sniffing note: André Kertész: Paris, Autumn 1963

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.

Book sniffing note: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1964 edition

I first met this set of encyclopedias in 1976, when they were a dozen years old and I was just a bit younger. They were on a bookshelf in the living room of my grandmother’s house in Fredonia, New York. I courted them again and again over three decades: whenever I was visiting and not occupied with other things – setting up domino reactions, blowing soap bubbles, photographing family, seeing local sights, watching television, playing darts in the cool empty basement – I might pull out a volume and look for something to read, just as I would at my own home with the World Book encyclopedias and, later, a much newer set of Britannica with soft covers that smelled of educated leather, a very different smell from any other encyclopedia.

This set travelled with my grandmother to a seniors’ residence. And then, when she was reducing her possessions to those few that would fit in a smaller apartment, I finally took it home with me in a rented car. It has anchored the bottom shelf of my bookcase for about fifteen years now, half of that since its original owner departed in hopes of meeting the source of all knowledge.

I don’t often pull out a volume and open it. I don’t need to; fresher information is available in fire-hose quantity through the same device I’m typing this on, and even the entertainment value of this dinosaur of knowledge is not as great as other options.

But a computer does not feel like a volume of this 1964 set of Britannica. And it certainly does not smell like it.

I have pulled out volume 7, Daisy to Educational Psychology, this evening. It is in good shape, less bumped and broken than some of the others. It feels solid, like a volume you would pull off the shelf in the first library where you learned what solid, smart books feel like. Though it would make a poor pillow, it is as comforting as down and cool, dry linen, inviting you to black-and-white dreams of knowledge. It has a hard cover in a deep red textured material that is at least meant to recall leather. When I open it, it makes a high, resonant creaking-cracking sound, something between a straw slurp and the opening of an ancient coffin from inside.

And then I smell it. Because that is what one does. There is nothing other that plucks the strings of memory as smartly as smell. You don’t know for sure that you are getting the real, authoritative, well-aged knowledge unless it smells like a book from your school library.

And this does. It smells like the grey-suit-with-school-tie version of a book. It is a crisp smell but not sharp, neither flowery nor floury, but partway between an HB pencil and a soda biscuit. It smells like the book where I first learned of logarithms; it smells like the book in which I made my first explorations of the German language. It smells like the official records of things my parents and teachers did. It smells like the elaborate mathematical equations it displays: it is the book-smell version of a schoolchild’s idea of an Ivy League physics classroom. It smells like maps and diagrams and dot-screened documentary photographs as you first learned the smells of such things. It smells like a Christmas morning of the mind.

It is the smell of plywood desks with laminate tops engraved by ballpoint pens; it is the smell of sitting lotus-legged on the hard rug floor between rows of shelves in the library, the comforting cliffs of knowledge towering above you as you relax in the quiet canyon of discovery, secure that no dedicated ignoramus will smoke you out. This one smell conveys structure and potential; it tells you that you are about to know more, and there may be a test.

This smell is the wrapping on a gift from God, the God of knowledge, the God my grandmother surely looked forward to meeting. What sort of a grandmother has a set of Britannica? A tall, graceful, smart, witty grandmother, magazine-model beautiful, lifelong teetotaller, former missionary, small-town western New York pragmatic, widow, high-school teacher. A woman who believed in gifts from God and believed that knowledge was one such. A woman whose name was literally a gift from God: Dorothy, from δῶρον (doron, ‘gift’) and θεός (theos, ‘god’).

And these books are a gift to me from my grandmother. She is ashes now, but this yard and a half of unburnt paper – bought when she was younger than I am now – remains. It takes up space I could use for other things, yes, but that’s what memories do.

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. Continue reading