Friday, August 18, 2017

The smell of books

There is something fishy afoot when I step into a new bookstore. The books all smell the same. It's a good smell, a fresh print, cut paper from the mill sort of smell. Honestly it can't be described, not many smells can. But I do love the smell. It is all evocation, though mostly the smell of new books always reminds me of The Lord of the Rings, which I got in a nice paperback boxed set forty years ago and inhaled.

But it's all just one smell, and it no longer seems normal to me.

I've also been in a lot of used bookstores lately. One would think the books there would have a variety of smells. But they don't. The books there all blend together not long after sitting on the shelves in such close proximity. This singular book smell is a more of a pure book smell, one with a touch of mustiness and cured paper. It is an old smell, plainspoken and comfortable.

But I, after so many years, am now used to a library. And the books where I work have an infinite number of smells. I know this even though I long ago learned to not let any of them too near my face. But even though I avoid sniffing I don't have to get anywhere near the recently returned Bill O'Reilly book I am shelving to know that it smells strongly and mysteriously of gasoline. Perhaps someone was thinking of burning it and backed down. I'm glad for that. I certainly couldn't care less what happens to Bill O'Reilly books, or Berenstain Bears books, but I believe enlightenment is the solution, not burning. Just yesterday there were books I encountered at work smelling of deep mildew and possibly mold, of fake candy strawberry, and of cigarettes, ozone, chocolate, tacos, and pine. I can see how that might seem fun; working in a smorgasbord of smells. And maybe it would be if I worked at a thousand flavor jelly bean plant. But here at the library these are not pure smells. These are not wholesome smells. These smells are underlaid by human grease, old food, stresses of heat and cold, and a slew of other incompatible, lingering smells that are now almost, but not entirely, eclipsed.

So I don't much like to think about where these books I'm handling have been. I wash my hands a lot. I try to keep completely in present with every book I shelve while at work. I try to let these books, as objects, have as little history as possible. But sometimes my nose tells me things, whether I want to know them or not.


  1. Ahh,, the nose knows. As do the fingertips. I don't like to think of what I mayhave had to wipe of books, board books and picture books especially. The one I remember? Oh, yes, I do hope that was orange juice.

    1. Ah yes, I like your educated point here. I agree that touch tells a tale too; tacky, sticky, greasy, slimy, wet, cold, smooth and rough. There are just so many things to try not to think about when handling library books!

  2. Books with pages stuck together is a whole different thing.....


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