Wednesday, June 18, 2014

`I Know Every Book of Mine By Its Scent'

I guessed citrus, faint but discernable. The librarian concurred but narrowed her guess to orange. Perhaps, but I noted a hint of lemon, though not so strong as furniture polish; more attenuated, like the scent of a lemon cake baking two rooms away. She was almost ready to agree when she renewed her argument in another direction: “Have you ever smelled a tea rose?” I thanked her again for fetching the book, Isaac Bashevis Singer’s The Spinoza of Market Street (1961), a first edition in a library binding, accompanied by a fragrance that turned an old favorite into a multi-sensory experience. I’ll note one sentence in the collection’s title story. The main character, Dr. Nahum Fischelson, hears the calls of vendors in the Warsaw streets, including this: “`Gold, gold, gold,’ a woman who dealt in rotten oranges shrieked.” 

A new book smells like a new refrigerator. That is, it doesn’t. A book’s scent is earned, and old books tend to smell musty or dusty, like the passage of time itself at the human scale. In 2009, a team of chemists analyzed old-book fragrance and concluded: “The aroma of an old book is familiar to every user of a traditional library. A combination of grassy notes with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla over an underlying mustiness, this unmistakable smell is as much part of the book as its contents.” This sounds suspiciously like the more pretentious reaches of wine-speak (“steely minerality”), but the chemists say the scent originates in “several hundred identified volatile and semivolatile organic compounds (VOCs) off-gassing from paper and the object in general.” I must work “off-gassing” into conversation soon. 

The non-VOC scent most often encountered in library books is tobacco, sometimes accompanied by a spill of ash. The effect on a non-smoking, book-loving reader is sickening. Old books smell good to those of us at home in their company. Non-readers, no doubt, would be offended. On his first visit to the Bodleian, Charles Lamb reports: “I seem to inhale learning, walking amid their foliage; and the odour of their old moth-scented coverings is fragrant as the first bloom of those sciential apples which grew amid the happy orchard.” Lamb’s “moth-scented” coinage sounds scriptural. In 1801, while reading Duns Scotus, Coleridge declares in a letter to Southey, “I am burning Locke, Hume, & Hobbes under his Nose -- they stink worse than Feathers or Assafoetida [sic].” Whether Coleridge refers to the philosophers or their books remains uncertain, though I prefer the approach of a lesser writer, George Gissing, who has the title character in The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft (1903), a semi-fictional version of himself, boast: 

“”…I know every book of mine by its scent, and I have but to put my nose between the pages to be reminded of all sorts of things. My Gibbon, for example, my well-bound eight-volume Milman edition, which I have read and read and read again for more than thirty years – never do I open it but the scent of the noble page restores to me all the exultant happiness of that moment when I received it as a prize. Or my Shakespeare, the Great Cambridge Shakespeare—it has an odour which carries me back yet further in life.” 

Ants, who communicate by emitting and reading smells, would understand. Imagine a vast catalogue of bookish scents: “Ah, yes, I smell the Burton. The McLean edition, 1826. Two volumes.”

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