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As often as I survey my bookshelves I am reminded of Lamb’s ‘ragged veterans’. Not that all my volumes came from the second-hand stalls; many of them, were neat enough in new covers, some were even stately in fragrant bindings, when they passed into my hands. But so often have I removed, so rough has been the treatment of my little library at each change of place, and to tell the truth, so little care have I given to its well-being at normal times (for in all practical matters I am idle and inept), that even the comeliest of my books show the results of unfair usage. More than one has been foully injured by a great nail driven into a packing case – this but the extreme instance of the wrongs they have undergone. Now that I have leisure and peace of mind, I find myself growing more careful – an illustration of the great truth that virtue is made easy by circumstance. But I confess that, so long as a volume holds together, I am not much troubled as to its outer appearance.

I know men who say they had as lief read any book in a library copy as in one from their own shelf. To me that is unintelligible. For one thing, 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 yet further  back in life; for these volumes belonged to my father, and before I was old enough to read them with understanding, it was often permitted me, as a treat, to take down one of them from the bookcase, and reverently to turn the leaves. The volumes smell exactly as they did in that old time, and what a strange tenderness comes upon me when I hold one of them in my hand.

George Gissing, The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft (1903).

I think Gissing wrote beautifully of how the scent of a book can evoke such strong feelings that one canbe easily transported back to the good old days gone by, but unfortunately, I don’t think I will ever have the pleasure of sharing his sentiments on this, personally.

I am one who is terribly sensitive to smells. And I mean that in a bad way. I get headaches and my eye hurts whenever I have to walk past the perfume counters at departmental stores, or any shops selling scented products for that matter. I usually have to just hold my breath and breathe through my mouth at such instances. I will opt for fragrant free products wherever possible. I can’t even stand the air fresheners that most people tend to put in their cars. Fortunately though, I have not suffered from the smell of books, so far. Maybe that’s because I don’t bury my nose between the pages enough, to notice their scent.

How about the rest of you? How sensitive are you to the way your books smell? Would any of you, by any chance, ever buy a book for the sake of its smell, perhaps? 🙂

And he became a connoisseur of paper-smells. He told Beharry, ‘You know, I could smell a book and tell how old it is.’ He always held that the book with the best smell was the Harrap’s French and English dictionary, a book he had bought, as he told Beharry, simply for the sake of its smell.

V.S Naipaul, The Mystic Masseur (1957).

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4 thoughts on “Friday Feature : The Scent of A Book

  1. One of the reasons I’m not enamored of e-readers is the lack of “book smell”–along with book feel. Those two things just add to the sensual pleasure of reading for me. I will avoid a book that smells of cigarettes or mold, but usually I like the pleasantly musty scent of used books, and also the sharp, inky smell of new ones.

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    1. I have never really paid much attention to how books smell, but I certainly agree that e-readers (although they really do appeal to me too, in terms of convenience and accessibility) lack the book feel, which does indeed add to the reading pleasure.

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  2. I love to smell books. It’s pretty much the first thing I do when I pick up a book. I don’t think I would buy a book based just on smell because I think there are maybe 6 basic types of book smell so one can own all 6 types of smells with books one actually ones, not just because of smell.

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    1. That’s interesting to know! Come to think of it, I think I just recalled reading on your blog sometime ago, about you getting a bottle of perfume with some bookish fragrance in it, was it not? 🙂

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