Rachel Morrison, senior library assistant at NYC’s Museum of Modern Art Library, is in the middle of a fascinating project called “Smelling the Books”: she is smelling each book in the collection and writing down what each smells like.
Her entries span from the “very smoky, campfire, fireplace” of The Saturday Book to the “cloves, cigar” smell of Quand les cathédrales étaient blanches to the “antique store, old wooden furniture” scent of Museums of the World.
We all have rituals when we hold a book in our hands for the first time. Some grip the book and forcefully break the spine, reveling in that first snap. Others caress the pristine pages with their fingers, taking pleasure in that first touch.
And then there are the others (like me) who lower their noses to it and take a deep breath….
Smell is arguably our most primitive sense. Perhaps our least appreciated (think of which of the 5 senses you would give up if you had to lose one; so often I hear smell as the answer!). But as we know, smell is (inexorably) linked to memory. It transports us back to lost loves, to dinners spent with old friends, to childhood libraries.
The English writer George Robert Gissing famously said, “I know every book of mine by its smell, and I have but to put my nose between the pages to be reminded of all sorts of things.”
I love the idea that we can know our books by their smells. And that our libraries are collections of our memories, olfactive and beyond!
My friend, Nicola, a scent expert and Synesthetic Provocateur, writes a fascinating blog called ‘postmodernspray’ (love the title!) on perfume and the power of scents. He recently wrote about the relationship between music and odors. It’s a definite must-read: click here to read all about it!
Are you a secret book smeller yourself?
I would most certainly say that touch and smell are the senses that take over when I approach a new book. Even before sight. I loved this post. And thank you for mentioning my blog my dear. Sometime ago I was in Cambridge… http://postmodernspray.blogspot.co.uk/2012/01/smell-of-knowledge.html
I love your phrase “the smell of knowledge” and the beautiful photos of that library!
Hahaha no I can’t say I smell books… But how about the smells of those old VHS cassettes? YUCK hahaha!
You’re right, they had a warm, inky smell I think!
You know, I don’t know if I smell my books. I know I instantly crack the spine. I love doing that, but I’ll have to pay closer attention to my other habits. It will be an interesting experiment.
I’m a spine cracker too 🙂 If you get a chance, feel free to take my reading questionnaire – it’s kind of fun and helps me with my research! https://readinginterrupted.com/10-reading-questions/
i don’t smell books, but i don’t mind smelling new books 🙂 thanks for sharing this new idea.
it’s true, new books have a fresher smell that’s probably more pleasant!
Great post! Reading is such a physical experience that I hope is not forgotten in this age of digital publication. While I can appreciate things I read on the screen, there is something about feeling the printed pages and actually being in the physical space of a book that is essential to a fulfilling experience.
Thanks! I agree; I think the book as object plays a big role in the reading experience (although I’m not completely against the electronic experience). I like your blog too!
Definitely a secret book smeller! Entering a bookshop, if you just inhale deeply it feels like home!
yes, and libraries too! (although they smell a bit differently than bookstores, no?)
I don’t think I ever consciously smell my books, but I do notice when one smells musty, or one smells like nice, clean paper. I think I’m more tactile than olfactory-conscious. Either way, I love holding a book in my hands. This is exactly why I’ll never switch to Kindles.
I love the feel of a book in my hands too, not just the cover, but the pages themselves, right? Thanks for reading 🙂
love the title of this post! I am definitely a book smeller and can’t quite decide if I prefer the musty, antique smell of old books or the fresh, pristine smell of new ones…
Thanks for your kind words! I know, I’m not sure which smell is better – I think I prefer the actual scent of a newer book but at the same time love the memories and comfort of the old book smells – so hard to decide, isn’t it?
I’m definitely a book sniffer! It’s the first thing I do when I get a book. I’m not a spine breaker though! Just the thought of that makes me shiver.
Also thank you for stopping by and subscribing to my blog. 🙂
I’m a spine breaker but I know some people hate the idea so I’d never do it on a borrowed book 🙂 I’m enjoying reading your posts!
interesting post…I’ve read your posts…very interesting…Roland Barthes is a reference to me…and the theme of reading is close to writing…my first book (fiction, romance, published on 2001)) I touch rarely…read randomly and rarely…a book is a concrete one also that requires reading to be alive, I don’t know what is a book, but the book I read is a book that reads me somehow…writing requires reading, I don’t know what I write…I write more than I read nowadays…congratulations and thanks for visiting my blog…in advance let me tell you that I smell new books, yeah!, but the first sense is listening…reading is a kind of listening. Walter
I agree, a sort of listening in your head! Thanks for following!
I’m definitely a book sniffer, from way back. It’s the first thing I do when opening a new book. And I agree with you, there is a unique smell to bookstores, second hand or otherwise, different from libraries. I’ve worked in a library and nothing can compare to the smell of antiquarian books in their special humidity controlled room. Heaven. And nothing makes me feel so good as a brand new book that is just crackling with promise and smells like possibility.
You’re so lucky to have worked in a library! Surrounded with those wonderful smells 🙂
I loved what you said, Letizia, about the connection between smell and memory. Much like Proust and the madeleines. It’s funny as I think that in America there is a tendency to mask or disguise smells. I once had a job evaluating teaching performance at a prestigious university, and the director told me that the teacher who I was evaluating really smelled. Although not a book and therefore slightly off topic, a teacher like a book is still a source of knowledge. And I mention this incident as my director told me to tell the teacher he smelled. Well, not an easy thing to do, but because he was from Greece I attributed it to cultural differences and he was contented with that and not, as I had feared, insulted or embarrassed.
Sorry to be posting late to this topic, but I had only intermittent Internet access, and now that I do have it I wanted to take the message from my head into your fine and flourishing Blog.
What a fascinating and odd situation you were in, Tisha! I do think it’s fascinating too how different culture vary on what is considered a good or bad smell. One would think that it would be universal but not at all! Thanks for your thoughtful comment!
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I love to read! Yes I have done that, ‘smell a book’. At times it brings back a memory of childhood when it is an older book. Great post! Thank you for liking my post. Have a great day. Renee 🙂
yes, I know what you mean by the childhood smell! Thanks for checking out my blog 🙂
You are very welcome. 🙂
When i was growing up in NYC always smelled the books in the library 🙂
I love the smell of books. Great Story.
I think the books of our childhood have a smell we’ll always remember, right? 🙂 Must have been fun to grow up in NYC!
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I tend to avoid testing the smell of books, especially old ones, in case they have the awful musty smell that invaded the books of my childhood in the Pacific. Now, that is no reason for an old book in NZ to have that musty smell but it’s just one of those smell associations from long ago. However, I think it is wonderful that someone has the task of smelling books! Just not the job for me. The sense of smell is, however, incredibly important because of the link between the olfactory bulb and neurogenesis of the brain. I don’t fully understand the process but (http://www.kcl.ac.uk/prospectus/group/neurogenesis) I do know that our olfactory bulb is the key to our ability to grow new brain cells. So sniff and smell as much as you like; it is surely good for us 🙂
How wonderful that smell is linked to the growth of new brain cells – I will think of this each time I smell a book, thank you for this delightful information!
I’m glad you are far away from the musty book odors of your childhood (I kind of like that smell in an odd way, but I can completely understand how it can have a negative association- especially when one was exposed to much to it as a child!).
Oh and I forgot to say I hadn’t heard of breaking the spine of a book; it sounds painful :),
What a horrid expression, isn’t it? 😮
I’m not so aroused by that ‘new book’ smell as I am by the smell of a book that’s had a life before it reaches my hands. I *will* sniff one – and it’s not an unpleasant smell – but as with ‘new car’ smell all it says to me is “You’re my first!”. It’s virginity minus the innocence.
A book has to be read through at least once to get rid of that fresh, production line aroma. It needs to have each fold exposed to the environment, and it is the variety and ultimately the combination of environments (of those places where it was read) that give each book it’s distinct aroma. It becomes a memento of everywhere it’s been, a record of every smoky fireside, busy café, park, train and freshly laundered bed it has spent time in.
A book smells of all those things and none. Books smell like books. I’ve just now taken down 5 random books from my shelves to compare how they smell. From 1968’s ‘down with skool!’, which has probably been in a school-bag or three in the last 45 years, to 2013’s ‘Time’s Laughingstocks’ which has only ever been in my hands. They all smell like books but each one different. Actually, that was a little surprising. I had thought they would tend towards that same slightly musty aroma books eventually pick up from too much time on a shelf, but there were definitely distinctions to be made. None, I’m happy to report, smelled of urine, wet dog or old person clothes. Although, ‘down with skool’ did come close to that last one. ;¬)
On a parting note, love the name of Rachel Morrison’s photographer. Talk about serendipity!
You make a good point. A good book smell tells a story, a story of where it’s been. That’s what makes it individual, that’s what intrigues us so. Even if some are musty or, like your copy of “Down with Skool!” smell a bit like an old person’s clothes!
I hadn’t paid attention to the photographer’s name – brilliant observation!
Thanks for dropping by and commenting; it was fun to read your reflections and to revisit this old post.