Nosy Readers

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.

Rachael Morrison. Photograph by Michael Schmelling

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?