A Scientific Explanation for Your Urge to Sniff Old Books is by Jude Stewart who writes about design and culture for Slate, the Believer, Fast Company, Design Observer and other publications. In this post Ms. Stewart “Breaks Down the Chemical Reactions Behind Olfactory Bibliomania.”
This fun and fascinating article appears on the Literary Hub website.
“Inside its dry and musty hull, the smell of old books contains great distances. You sense time travel, of course, but also the soaring aeronautics of ideas. Sometimes a great book sticks the landing, very often they don’t. And sometimes books fail to jump high enough.
“In smelling old books, you can smell actual geographic distances, too. Imagine all the cardboard boxes necessary to crate up a roomful of books, the slow trundle of cargo to a new destination, the books aging along with their owner from move to move. Readers who find this smell intoxicating are ruefully aware of how insane, how flatly contradictory of convenience, loving this smell can be.
“From an old book filters up a whiff of dissolution and conjuring. Ghosts, like smells, are composed of particles, a levitating cloud forming a slightly denser shape than the surrounding air. The disembodied words of writers, whether dead or otherwise absent, find body in these volumes.
“The litany of things book-smell resembles suggests elements of peaceful civilization: Well-rubbed wooden furniture. Leather bookmarks. Just-opened tobacco tins. Toasted almonds mixed with vanilla. Tea. Pressed flowers. Radiator heating pinging on. Candles and spent matches. Undisturbed dust, with its suggestion of perfect stillness and the happy dilation of hours spent reading.
“This is an intimate smell that’s not necessarily miniature. You can smell a single old book, riffle through its pages rapidly and let your nose bask in the scented breeze. But just as often you encounter this smell as a solid wall in a used bookstore or library. Writ large like this, old books smell like a constructed forest: ancient and druidical, exhaling to make their own atmosphere, a forgotten primordial home...”
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